Slap-down against Democrat Ag Commissioner Nikki Fried: GOP votes to take away her energy office

Democrat Nikki Fried staged a news conference on Feb. 5, 2020, to denounce legislative attacks on her Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services: Credit: Fried's office

The Republican-controlled budget committee in the Florida House voted Wednesday to wrest control of the state Office of Energy away from the state’s lone statewide elected Democrat, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Instead, the Office of Energy would be overseen by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-dominated state Cabinet.

The same committee also voted to hold back nearly $20 million from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to punish Commissioner Nikki Fried for including her own mug shot on inspection stickers plastered on gas pumps across Florida.

House Republicans are both pushing measures with support from the governor. Given the political odds against her, Fried saw no point in appearing before the committee, she said during a news conference Wednesday morning.

But, flanked by Democratic legislators, Fried denounced the moves against her as “part of larger power grab to increase unchecked power of the governor and subvert democracy.”

The Appropriations Committee approved legislation (HB 5401) sponsored by Republican Holly Raschein to transfer control of the energy office from Fried’s office to the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP. That agency is overseen by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet.

Fried has a seat on the Cabinet, but has lost a number of policy and personnel votes to its Republican majority. She has used the office to promote energy efficiency, renewable power, and improved access to affordable power.

Democrats on the budget committee repeatedly asked Raschein to justify the transfer. Would it save money? Has the office been mismanaged under Finke? The answer, repeatedly, was No.

So what happened to justify her bill?

“Quite frankly, the election of Gov. Ron DeSantis happened,” Raschein, who represents Monroe and Miami-Dade counties, said.

“He’s really taken the lead on all things related to climate change and has consistently shown that the environment is one of his priorities. This would be a perfect time to transfer the state Energy Office to under his leadership at the DEP,” she said, referring to the Department of Environmental Protection.

The committee voted down an amendment to the transfer bill, offered by Democratic Rep. Kristin Diane Jacobs of Broward County, that would have delayed the switch until 2022 to allow study of whether the move makes sense.

Earlier in the day – before a power outage plunged the room into temporary darkness – the committee OK’d a budget bill containing language that would sequester nearly $20 million from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Specifically, proviso language orders that the money “shall be placed in reserve until the  department submits a plan to the Legislative Budget Commission for removing stickers affixed by the department to petroleum fuel tanks which are not in compliance” with a statute approved last year that allows “only a combination of lettering, numbering, words, or the department logo” on the inspection stickers.

That had been the practice before Fried became commissioner.

Fried had appeared before a budget subcommittee that ultimately rejected her appeal to leave the office alone.

“Republicans are threatened,” Fried said. “They had near-complete power for almost two decades. Now a Democratic woman gets elected statewide and an old-boys’ club cannot stand for it.”

Deborah Foote, government affairs and policy director of the Florida Sierra Club, testified before the committee that the energy office transfer could delay the state’s efforts to confront climate change. “With any change, it takes time, and we don’t have time to waste.”

But change made perfect sense to Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, in light of the rise of DeSantis, who he called “the most pro-environment governor in America.”

“I think taking something about energy, which directly relates to the environment, and including it with all of the other environmental areas, I think makes all the sense in the world,” Fine said.

“Perhaps it is political – and it’s political because we have a governor who’s now finally taking this issue seriously,” he said.

In fact, the office was moved from DEP to Agriculture and Consumer Services when Charlie Crist was governor. Crist’s successor, Gov. Rick Scott, was remarkable for his apparent indifference to climate change.

Fried argued that removing the existing stickers would delay inspections of other gas pumps. Meanwhile, the budget sequestration would target Fried’s consumer services staff from investigating consumer complaints, testing products including brake fluid and gasoline, inspecting amusement park rides, and removing gas pump skimmers.

“House leaders want to risk all of this – hold up the jobs of 184 hard-working state workers over gas pump stickers,” she said.

“There’s not quite been a power grab like we’re seeing today. It’s blatant,” said Evan Jenne, a Broward County Democrat who chairs his caucus’s policy apparatus and sits on the Appropriations Committee.

“It’s a political power grab, it’s a partisan power grab, and, quite frankly, they don’t like that this woman has that much power,” Jenne said.