By Craig Pittman
The 12-step people always say that the first step is admitting you have a problem, so here goes: Hi, I’m Craig, and I’m a civics nerd.
As a kid, I fell under the magical spell of the Watergate hearings. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by government stuff.
The “I’m Just A Bill” song is my jam. I read sample ballots, research constitutional amendments before voting on them, and check my TRIM notice. I watch “1776” every Fourth of July (my kids prefer “Hamilton,” which I must admit has some catchy tunes). Once I even vacationed in exotic Washington, D.C., or as I call it, “the Paris of the Potomac.”
I follow this stuff not just because our Florida politicians’ dopey comments and poorly thought out antics are hilarious. I do it because I like knowing how things work.
So when I saw a headline in the Orlando Sentinel over the weekend about the incoming speaker of the Florida House and president of the Florida Senate talking about their priorities for the next legislative session, it was like dangling a ribeye in front of a bulldog. I bit.
The House speaker and Senate president are the second-most powerful people in state government, ranking just below our drag-queen-hating governor. They control which laws the Legislature will pass and how it will spend the taxpayers’ money.
What they had to say was both fascinating and alarming.
“’Attainable’ housing for workers and steps to prevent a push by ‘woke’ billionaires on issues such as energy and fossil fuels will be priorities during the next couple of legislative sessions, incoming House and Senate leaders said Saturday,” the story began.
I must admit that that opening made my eyebrows shoot upward like a bullet fired from a gun in Miami to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Unlike the bullet, my eyebrows did not descend for quite some time as I read on.
Florida’s got a lot of problems: water pollution fueling toxic algae blooms, dying manatees, vanishing seagrass, the rapid spread of monkeypox and meningitis, and a property insurance industry that seems less stable than the San Andreas Fault, to name a few. I was expecting some mention of those.
But “woke billionaires”? On the list of Florida’s 500 most urgent problems, that ranks around 497th, just behind “blew out my flip flop, stepped on a pop top.”
Incoming Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, was the one who brought up the very real issue of housing, although she referred to “attainable” instead of “affordable” housing. The difference is the price, which governs whether we’re talking about inconvenienced middle class people or desperate poor folks.
It was House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Left Field, who brought up those darn billionaires.
Renner, the story reported, “said more attention is needed to address corporate pushes toward what are known as environmental, social, and governance principles, which often include favoring investment in green energy over fossil fuels.”
After all the recent headlines about heat waves, wildfires, and flooding, you may be thinking: “Wait, investing in green energy like solar in order to battle climate change — that’s a bad thing?”
According to Renner, the answer is a resounding, if oily, yes:
“It’s the biggest threat that I think we don’t really know much about,” Renner said. “And that is really an effort by billionaires, woke billionaires, to leverage American capitalism against us and turn our American companies into advocates for the woke agenda. This includes cutting off our energy sector and inducing what I believe is going to be a politically induced energy crisis in America, going against our agriculture sector, going against a lot of things that make America work.”
My reaction to reading that convoluted Renner quote can be summed up in three words: “Say what now?”
“Federally mandated snobbery”
As I have pointed out before, Florida is the state most vulnerable to climate change.
Our topography is as flat as Kansas, so the seas rising fast on three sides keep inundating low-lying neighborhoods. Our already hot temperatures are getting hotter. We’re seeing stronger hurricanes with bigger storm surges, causing far greater destruction. Meanwhile, warmer waters are stimulating the growth of more toxic algae blooms.
This is a situation that should hit home for our new House speaker. He lives in the Flagler County town of Palm Coast. According to FlaglerLive.com, in the 2013 National Climate Assessment, “Palm Coast is one of four Florida cities singled out as being most ‘vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge.’”
Sea level rise is just the most obvious manifestation of our climate change peril. Yet Speaker-designate Renner has barely even mentioned that when talking about Florida’s future. Not all Republican politicians are quite so deluded.
Gov. Ron “I Love Developers More Than J-Lo Loves Ben Affleck” DeSantis likes to pretend he’s a tough guy, but he seems scared to even s-s-speak the words “climate change.” Nevertheless, DeSantis at least acknowledges that Florida’s waterfront property developers need a lot of taxpayer-funded protection from becoming flooded.by the rising tide.
The main fuel for climate change spews from the smokestacks of America’s coal- and oil-burning power plants. That means the best way to combat this plague is by supporting renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Yet Renner will have none of that radical talk. According to him, what we’ve got to watch out for are those billionaires who are “woke,” which, according to Merriam-Webster, means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues.” He apparently prefers everyone to hit the snooze button.
My first thought was that Renner must be parroting something he heard from that bow-tied bloviator Tucker “Insurrection? What Insurrection?” Carlson. After all, the Frat Boy of Fox once claimed environmentalism is merely “federally mandated snobbery.”
Yeah, Tuck, those folks in Perry who’ve spent years trying to stop a paper mill from dumping stinky substances into the Fenholloway River are snobs. Riiiight.
But then I thought, “No, Renner’s a man, not a squawking parrot. You can tell because of his lack of colorful plumage. Perhaps he has some reason for saying such ridiculous stuff. I should ask him.”
Well, I tried. I left messages at his legislative office and his Jacksonville law firm, which I believe you can find in the Florida Bar directory under the name “Nutburger, Kook & Bizarro.”
He failed to respond to my inquiries. I am sure it wasn’t because he knew he’d be unable to explain himself. I bet he was busy building a wall at the Florida-Georgia border to keep all he woke billionaires out. Eternal vigilance is the price of anti-woke-ism, people!
I searched for an explanation in his background. Perhaps a windmill blade had killed his dog Smokey, or a solar panel fell on his pinky toe. That would explain why he turns an angry red at the thought of green energy.
But there was nothing. Renner’s the son of a pastor and a teacher. He retired from the U.S. Navy as a commander. His financial disclosure forms show he owns a house worth more than $1 million and earns more than $200,000 a year. He and his wife have two kids. He’s apparently cool with leaving them a hotter, broken world.
When I dug into his campaign contributions, though, I at last found a few clues.
Renner, like all successful Florida lawmakers, has two big wheelbarrows for collecting corporate cash — er, excuse me, a pair of political action committees. PACs can glom onto much larger contributions than what he, as a candidate, can legally accept.
The PAC I found particularly interesting is called Conservatives for Principled Leadership. It’s headquartered at 1103 Hays Street in Tallahassee. Remember that address.
In the 2020 election, Renner “received $109,930 in utility donations via his PAC, Conservatives For Principled Leadership, as well as $1,000 from TECO and $2,000 from Duke (Energy) directly,” noted the Energy and Policy Institute, a California-based watchdog on utilities.
His PAC’s other big donors included a couple of other PACs, one named “Living Life with a Purpose” and the other named “Honest Leadership.” (Yeah, I laughed too.)
Big donors to “Living Life with a Purpose” include Tampa Electric Co., aka TECO. Meanwhile, the big donors to “Honest Leadership” include NextEra Energy, owner of Florida Power and Light, the state’s biggest utility (and the secret proprietor of a right-wing website called The Capitolist).
Here’s a detail that only a civics nerd would notice: The address for both of those PACs is 1103 Hays Street in Tallahassee. That means two PACs in that building donated money to a third PAC in the same building.
How does that happen? Did someone walk the money from one room to another, or was it merely transferred from the left hand to the right? I’m hoping the process involved a tube system, like you used to see at drive-in banks.
As it turns out, the building at that address belongs to Noreen Fenner LLC. Who is Noreen Fenner? She’s the president of “Bundletrack US,” which offers “the simplest fundraising software for recording and tracking contributions.” I guess she also rents out space for utility-backed PACs to find shelter from the storm of public disapproval.
Feel free to make your own fun alterations to the PAC names. Mine are “Living a Lie On Purpose,” “Dishonest Leadership” and “Conservatives Whose Principles Are For Sale.”
I noticed that the Solar Power Political Action Committee gave Renner’s secondary PAC $20,000, but they were heavily outspent by the fossil fuel-powered power companies. You can guess the outcome.
Renner, staunch defender of pollution-spewing power plants, has been taking fistfuls of money from pollution-spewing power companies.
You can’t see it but I am now doing my imitation of Captain Renault from “Casablanca” “discovering” that gambling is going on.
Fools for fossil fuels
As I looked at Renner campaign backers, another familiar name caught my eye.
In May, Renner’s “Conservatives Whose Only Principle is Gimme” PAC was the recipient of $25,000 from a conglomerate called Koch Industries. Among Koch’s main interests: oil, oil and gas pipelines, and coal.
Here’s a fun fact: Koch owns Georgia-Pacific, the current owner of that polluting Perry paper mill. (Try saying that three times fast.)
The Koch conglomerate was led for years by Charles and David Koch, who have been tagged by the New Yorker as “the primary sponsors of climate-change doubt in the United States.”
In other words, they’re probably the most woke billionaires ever, because they’re aware of the facts — yet put their own profits ahead of what’s good for the planet.
Now it all makes sense. Instead of tackling head-on an important Florida issue that affects his own district, Renner claims the real danger is anyone who would dare to upset the polluters financing his campaign.
He wants us to take care of those beleaguered coal barons, oil industry execs, and power company CEOs. They give so much to us — just think of all the new beachfront property they’re creating inland! All they ask in return is every dollar in your pocket as they continue wrecking our lovely state.
If it were just Renner kowtowing to Koch et. al, I wouldn’t be so bothered. But he’s not Florida’s only fool for fossil fuels, as we saw during the recent legislative session.
When powerful Florida Power & Light wanted to hobble the state’s rooftop solar industry, the company drafted its own anti-solar bill. Its lobbyist handed it to a subservient lawmaker to sponsor, along with a $10,000 contribution to her PAC. The bill passed both houses by wide margins as if the two chambers were filled with a flock of Renner parrots.
The bill would’ve strangled the state’s nascent solar industry in its cradle had DeSantis not surprised everyone by vetoing it. But DeSantis, running for reelection, left the door open for the bill to come back next year, when there’s no election.
An even clearer message came from the lawmakers who passed a DeSantis-backed bill for throwing millions of tax dollars at those “resilience” projects to protect waterfront property from the invading sea.
They repeatedly rejected efforts by a few legislators to require some action on what’s causing the sea level to rise. Rep. Ben Diamond, D-Paying Attention, told them they were, in effect, “putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone.”
I wish I could give you an easy solution for this — something snappy that would make all the Renners change their pro-pollution tune. All I can do is encourage you to become a civics nerd like me:
Look up who your legislator is and contact him or her. Tell ‘em you’re worried climate change is making life a lot worse for us all, even if the power companies collect more money from our increased air conditioner use. Tell ’em that armoring the coastline and jacking up highways is a short-term patch on a long-term problem.
And if you live in Palm Coast, track down Speaker Renner at the Publix or the Metro Diner and ask him to show you his “Honest Leadership.” You may have to wave a dollar bill in front of him to get his attention. If nothing else, you may get to hear him squawk like a parrot.
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You’re In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the “Welcome to Florida” podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.