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Natural Gas Fuel, Utility Contractor Records-Exemption Bills Pass Subcommittee

A trio of bills having to do with alternative energy sources passed through a House subcommittee on Tuesday. The most debate surrounded a proposed public-records exemption for high-tech companies trying to win business from public utility companies.

Companies trying to win business from public utility companies could have their information shielded from the public, if a bill passes the Florida Legislature. Major city utility companies, like the ones in Jacksonville and Orlando, want to keep the tech companies’ information secret during the bidding process.

Chip Merriam, with the Orlando Utilities Commission, said, utilities need the most innovative ideas to help them comply with federal laws capping pollution. But, he said, fledgling companies are scared of exposure to competitors.

“We have been approached by some that have looked at a way to reduce our carbon-dioxide footprint by developing an algae source. That algae source could turn into a biofuel,” he said. “We have gone back and forth trying not to share any records to protect their development. Our solution was actually to use a non-disclosure agreement, which our counsel doesn’t believe protects them.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Travis Cumming (R-Orange Park), said, the public records exemption should help public utilities find cost-saving technologies that they can’t without it.

“These issues limit the access of public utilities in relation to business choices that would otherwise provide a benefit,” he said.

But Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda (D- Tallahassee) said, she’s concerned that any records exemption is a step toward obscuring government business from the public.

“I don’t really feel comfortable voting yes on this bill, partially because I’m concerned with slippery slope-ism,” she said.

But Cummings points out, the bill has been vetted by open-government watchdog group the First Amendment Foundation. They made several changes, including that utilities must keep tech companies’ records for a year after they submit bids. And the records exemptions would apply only to scientific information, not financial records.

Another measure that passed the subcommittee on Tuesday was one that creates a new tax structure for natural gas suppliers to encourage more widespread use of the alternative fuel. Bill sponsor Lake Ray (R- Jacksonville) said, encouraging clean energy would reduce emissions and make Florida more attractive to countries that have entered the Kyoto Protocol, which reduces carbon emissions worldwide.

“If you move your goods by natural gas, you put a zero in that column of carbon emissions that are created as a result of that. So it doesn’t matter where we are in that discussion—we have not entered into that agreement, as I’m sure you’re aware—but when we talk about selling our products abroad, it gives us a competitive advantage,” he said.

Ray’s measure has the support of environmentalists and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. It would create a five-year tax exemption to incentivize the creation of new natural gas fueling stations. It’s all part of the state’s plan to streamline its shipping, including changes to ports and inland shipping centers.

Finally, the subcommittee passed a bill that would let school districts create fuel for buses and other vehicles out of discarded cooking oil.