DeSantis moves to consolidate power; Fried pushes back to keep Office of Energy

Commissioner Nikki Fried, flanked by Sen. Kevin Rader, was angry Tuesday about efforts to take the Office of Energy out of her department. Photo: Laura Cassels

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is moving in on Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried’s turf – and she’s not happy about it.

Fried has denounced as politically motivated legislation being pushed by the governor to shift the state Office of Energy out of her department.

“It’s partisan punishment and another power grab,” Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat, told reporters during a press conference Tuesday in the Capitol.

Legislation to transfer the Office of Energy, housed in Agriculture and Consumer Services since 2011, to the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, from which it was removed in 2011, passed in a House Appropriations subcommittee the same morning on a vote of 10-2.

Governors alone appoint secretaries of the DEP.

Fried, elected in 2018, said her management of the office has generated its first meaningful results in many years. It makes no sense for DeSantis, who has introduced no energy policy, to want control of the office, she added.

Rep. Kristin Diane Jacobs of Broward County, the committee’s ranking Democrat, and Rep. Tina Scott Polsky, a Palm Beach Democrat, questioned the practical need for the transfer – questions that no one on the committee really answered.

“The jurisdiction of the Office of Energy fits well under the Department of Environmental Protection,” bill sponsor Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican representing Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, replied.

Jacobs persisted.

“Over the last nine years, the Office of Energy has been operating pretty well, so I’m trying to understand the justification for shifting it, when it seems to be working so well, from one agency to another,” she said, noting that two similar organizational transfers to DEP also are in the works. “It is a Herculean effort. It’s a huge change in the department structure of our state.”

Polsky also challenged the measure.

“I’m curious why did the Office of Energy leave DEP a couple of years ago, and why would it be better off now going back to the agency it originally left?” Polsky asked. “I see this as a solution in search of a problem.”

Raschein replied that former Gov. Charlie Crist wanted it moved out of DEP and assigned it to focus on climate change, a mission that received no support under Crist’s successor, former Gov. Rick Scott, a climate-change denier.

“Are we concerned about any kind of conflict of interest if DEP regulates state utilities and then they’re also going to be dealing with, hopefully, renewable energy and climate change issues and things that we all need going forward?” Polsky asked.

Rashein answered, “Quite the opposite. I think it would be nice to have everything housed under one roof.”

Fried testified before the subcommittee in opposition to the transfer.

“Why is this bill being proposed now?” she asked. “Why are we now choosing to disrupt this office, now that it is actually working for the people? The answers, I fear, are not found in policy, or in the name of government streamlining or efficiency.”

She said DEP made “critical mistakes” when it managed the office, including failure to process 10,000 solar-energy rebates that her department eventually cleared. She said DEP still has not issued a single grant from the Volkswagen settlement funds.

Jacobs articulated what had to that point gone unsaid: “I know leaders of our chambers want to see this moved.” She referred to Senate President Bill Galvano and House Speaker Jose Oliva.

Although she conceded the transfer could unravel the “fine work” Fried had achieved while managing the office, Jacobs voted with the majority to pass the bill.

Polsky went the other way. “For first time in two years on this committee, I have to vote no,” she said.

Following the vote, Fried held her press conference with Democratic Sen. Kevin Rader and Rep. Javier Fernandez to condemn the measure as a setback to energy policy. Rader, who represents Broward and Palm Beach counties, and Fernandez, of Miami-Dade, are sponsoring legislation to implement Fried’s energy proposals.

Asked why even Democrats voted against her in the committee, she said they risk losing support for their own legislation should they cross the Republican leadership behind the bill.

“The Republicans control the budget,” Fried said.