By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday about the language of a proposed constitutional amendment that would let consumers buy electricity from independent solar power companies, rather than stay dependent on state-regulated utilities.
Florida is one of a handful of states where homeowners and businesses are not permitted by law to buy electricity directly from anyone other than a utility.
Attorneys for the utilities told the court the amendment promoting solar energy is deceptively worded and improperly deals with multiple parts of state law.
But a lawyer for advocates of putting the proposal on the 2016 election ballot said it will simply allow consumers to find cheap, clean electricity.
“It does that: no more, no less,” said Robert Nabors, representing Floridians for Solar Choice.
His clients have certified more than 121,000 voter signatures for a "Solar Choice" ballot initiative that would prevent government agencies or power companies from imposing regulations or fees on rates, services and territories for solar facilities.
Organizers say another 110,000 signatures are awaiting verification.
Property owners could generate up to 2 megawatts and sell power directly to adjacent homes or businesses.
The Supreme Court does not rule on whether the amendment is a good idea, only on whether its 75-word ballot summary accurately depicts a proposal, and whether the measure deals with a single subject.
In a courtroom packed with solar choice supporters, the seven justices sharply questioned attorneys for an hour about legal precedents on ballot initiatives.
Barry Richard, representing Florida Power & Light Co, Tampa Electric Co and Duke Energy Florida and Gulf Power Co, claimed the amendment deals with regulatory matters at state, county and city levels, more than one topic, and that its summary suggests the state placed "unfavorable" terms on solar providers.
“There is no evidence that the Public Service Commission is imposing barriers,” Richard said.
Stephen Grimes, a former Supreme Court justice representing the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association, said the amendment would strip the PSC and local governments of some regulatory powers, though the ballot summary does not say so.
“The ballot summary fails to advise the voter that small solar providers can completely ignore health, safety and building code regulations,” he said. “They didn’t want the voters to know that.”
If the court approves the wording, supporters have until Feb. 1 to gather 683,149 valid voter signatures statewide to get the proposal on the ballot.
(Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh)