A state regulatory agency ordered the company to refund $54 million to customers last week, yet many Duke Energy customers remain unhappy about being charged for $3.2 billion in failed nuclear power plant projects.
And one candidate for the Florida House is feeling the heat.
Danny Burgess, the former Zephyrhills mayor looking to replace Will Weatherford in Tallahassee, had to answer some tough questions from a crowd during a forum at Lexington Oaks last week about accepting a campaign contribution from Duke, and how that might affect his stance on what the nation’s largest utility is charging Florida residents.
“The answer is very simple: nobody can buy my vote,” Burgess said. “I have been very fortunate to receive a lot of local support, and I have to be able to lay down my head at night. When I make a decision, it’s for every single person in this room.”
Burgess, like other Legislature candidates from both parties, accepted a $1,000 contribution from Duke on July 25. He also received indirect support from Duke through a $2,000 contribution from the Republican Party of Florida, according to state campaign finance records, an organization that has received $100,000 from Duke this year, as well as in-kind donations of $32,250.
Duke customers pay a $3.45 surcharge on their bills each month to help fund the company’s closed nuclear power plant in Crystal River, as well as the cancelled nuclear power plant project in Levy County.
“Duke Energy donated to my campaign,” Burgess said. “Does that mean I support their decisions? Absolutely not. And I believe that we should repeal the Nuclear Cost Recovery clause.”
Beverly Ledbetter, the Democratic challenger for House District 38 against Burgess, said she has not taken any money from Duke. She also acknowledges, however, she has an uphill climb against Burgess, raising just $24,000 compared to his $119,000 haul.
“I didn’t take money from utilities, and I don’t take money from those who do not have the same values that I have,” Ledbetter said at the forum. “I am not as well funded as Danny, but I am proud of what we’ve done at the end of day. You have to look at yourself in the mirror, and you have to be proud of who you are and what you represent.”
Ledbetter, a retired educator with Pasco County Schools, says she supports a controversial version of the Common Core school curriculum that is being integrated into Florida schools. Setting standards is exactly what educators need, with some of what she called political pressures removed from testing.
“Every teacher believes in testing,” she said. “They want to assess where our students are so that we know what they have learned. The problem is that these tests are being used for things that tests should not be used for. Too much is riding on the outcome — school grades, teacher pay, graduation and promotion for our students.”
And it comes with a $250 million price tag, money that could be spent on vocational education instead, Ledbetter said.
But Common Core takes away from the ability of local schools to tailor educational needs to their specific students, Burgess said.
“I am not in favor of putting more of our education decisions in the hands of Washington bureaucrats,” he said. “We need to focus on local autonomy and local control, and nobody knows the needs of our students here locally better than the teachers in our classrooms, and the administrators at the local level.”
Based on his experience as a small city mayor, Burgess said he saw firsthand how important local control can be.
“It is the most important form of government, and nobody knows the needs of the community more than the people on the ground,” he said.
But the federal government did not develop Common Core, Ledbetter said. Instead, the National Governors Association — a bipartisan organization consisting of state governors — created the standardized education system.
Once kids get out of school and into the work force, Burgess says he’s optimistic about their chances. And while raising wages should be considered, he’s not convinced it’s something the government should mandate.
“What we also need to take into consideration is small businesses in our communities that create jobs,” Burgess said. “If you raise the minimum wage, you have to be careful that it may, in turn, have unintended consequences. It may cause employers to have to lay people off, and even may cause employers to shut their doors.”
Yet, raising the minimum wage could, in itself, provide a boost in the economy, Ledbetter said.
“This talk about the living wage is because people who are working these minimum wage jobs now can’t afford to buy a home, and they don’t have a lot of disposable income,” Ledbetter said. “Demand creates jobs, and when you have money to spend, you can buy goods and services.”
Low pay can also burden taxpayers, too, Ledbetter said. She cited a study about Walmart employees, who have to seek public assistance for basic needs because their low-wage jobs won’t cover it.
Burgess said he wouldn’t completely discount the possibility of a state minimum wage, just that it be thought through thoroughly.
“It’s a serious issue,” he said, “and something that needs to be seriously evaluated.”
Published October 8, 2014
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