Progressives have for years been laying the groundwork to co-opt conservatives on energy policy, paying existing right-of-center groups to help them communicate with the rest, creating new organizations and heading them with a conservative or two for appearances, and ultimately using the jargon of markets and freedom in the service of cronyism.
A jarring example of this is well underway in Florida, where environmentalist foundations have secured the support of some right-of-center groups for a ballot initiative promoting solar power.
The concept isn’t one you’d expect to naturally come from free-market types: rather than opening up the field to all competitors, the ballot initiative just carves out part of a captive market for solar electricity. You might not expect anyone from an explicitly anti-cronyism movement like the Tea Party to demand that the state’s constitution “encourage and promote” a specific, heavily subsidized product, but the “Green Tea Coalition” makes enough soothing references to “freedom” and “energy choice” that sympathetic reporters nod along. The “Tea Party” faces of the coalition say they oppose all energy subsidies, but they may never get around to answering how that translates into narrow support for one technology that requires dizzyingly higher subsidies per unit of energy (solar receives 27% of total electrical production subsidies to produce 0.5% of total electricity, according to brand-new numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration). Still, we can make some educated guesses.
When a piece of legislation seems tailored to benefit a particular small interest group, it isn’t an accident. Following the money, when possible, will lead back to them. So they try to cover their tracks, but sometimes you can pick up the trail.
Start with the “Tea” face of the Coalition, Conservatives for Energy Freedom. That group’s Florida Director is also chair of the group that collects signatures for the initiative, Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC). FSC’s treasurer and registered agent, George Cavros, is an attorney at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), which also provides nearly all of FSC’s funding. So some conservatives are skeptical when SACE calls FSC a “grassroots citizens’ effort.”
And when some of those conservatives start wondering whose cash could have motivated SACE to take on this project, their top suspect is billionaire Tom Steyer. Steyer has a financial stake in solar power, and his money has flowed into organizations that have been preparing the political battlefield for these kinds of initiatives for years. Campaign donations, think tanks, foundation-funded advocacy—Steyer has found a way to spend tens of millions of dollars on each of them in the last six years.
Indeed, Steyer’s TomKat Charitable Trust had already funneled more than $3 million to the Energy Foundation between 2009 and 2013, and the Energy Foundation in turn has passed through $2.6 million in grants to SACE. So it’s cold comfort when SACE tells reporters that it hasn’t accepted money directly from Steyer’s groups, and the lack of transparency in how money passes through layers of foundations means we only have their word that his fingerprints aren’t on it.
How about the other members of the “solar choice” coalition? The Sierra Club acknowledges that it has accepted donations directly from the TomKat Charitable Trust. The Green Tea Coalition also touts that they have the support of the Christian Coalition, which is reprising its role from the net neutrality fight as a sock puppet for strange bedfellow with progressive activists, and it turns out the Christian Coalition has also been accepting a series of grants from the Energy Foundation, totaling more than $1 million, since 2012. Judging by their Form 990 returns, that is a huge fraction of their revenue.
Putting a small number of conservative faces on heavily subsidized “green energy” is not isolated to Florida. The Energy Foundation also provides grants to the Wind Coalition and the Alliance for Solar Choice. The former’s executive director was on the Advance Staff for the campaign of George W. Bush, and the latter helped pay for TUSK in Arizona, a group chaired by former Republican Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr. With national-level money flowing to more regional and state groups, it’s a tactic we should expect to see elsewhere.
These dots don’t all connect neatly, but together they raise questions about the reliance of these superficially conservative groups on progressive donors who just might not have conservatives’ best interests at heart. And it’s a story worth tracking moving forward.