Adam Putnam on high-speed rail, renewable energy and the art of compromising

  • Adam Putnam at Maestro's in Tampa on Friday

Upon taking office in 2011, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam announced that along with water and nutrition, energy policy was an issue that he was going to put an intense focus on during his tenure in office. That's what led to him presenting a series of proposals to a legislative committee nearly two years ago that he said would help the state become a leader in renewable energy.

But he admitted on Friday that much of his 12-point plan that he offered to the House Energy and Utility Subcommittee has not come to fruition.

"A lot of the private investment has moved into the shale gas revolution and the businesses that surround that," he told CL after speaking to the Tampa Tiger Bay Club at Maestro's Restaurant inside the Straz Center.

When it comes to measures that would promote the growth of solar power, for example, the state badly lags behind many others around the nation, with no policies regarding net metering or renewable electricity standards in place- policies that would demand that power companies like Duke, TECO or Florida Power and Light set specific targets for solar or other forms of clean power.

However there is one policy change his office is advocating for the Legislature to pass next year that has been a barrier for new solar power companies doing business in Florida. That would be to offer tax protections to businesses that want to install solar panels on their roofs. A bill that excludes renewable energy systems from assessed residential property values passed the Legislature earlier this year.

That proposal "has the potential to unlock the market" when it comes to solar energy in the Sunshine State, says Susan Glickman, the Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. But she agrees very little has happened with renewable energy in Florida since Putnam addressed the Legislature.

"The state has not gone far enough to encourage the use of homegrown renewable energy," she says. "We send close to $60 billion dollars out of state to buy fuel from elsewhere in order to create jobs in Florida. We need to keep those energy dollars here at home."

Always considered something of a political wunderkind after being elected to Congress at the tender age of 26, there were rumors earlier this year that Putnam was considering a primary battle against Rick Scott after the governor announced his support for expanding Medicaid (Putnam called that "naive").

That moment of political intrigue came and went relatively quickly, as he stands foursquare behind Scott's re-election efforts next year. However he did say that unlike the governor, he supports high-speed rail.

"I personally believe that high speed rail does have a place in a a transportation portfolio," he said, adding he was a believer in high speed rail along the I-4 corridor long before Ed Turanchik tried to bring the Olympics to the region (that effort began in the late 90's). Saying that the state hopes to increase its tourism numbers from 90 million visitors annually to 100 million, finding an alternative way of moving people from Tampa Bay to Orlando and vice versa is crucial.

He argued passionately that Florida's economy has rebounded better than many (but not all) states in the nation. "I believe that the Legislature, the Cabinet and the Governor deserve an awful lot of credit for making hard decisions when Florida was at rock bottom that have allowed us to recover as or more quickly than many other states and diversify our economy and create new opportunities for Floridians."

There was plenty of talk about agriculture as well during his appearance. Specifically citrus greening, the incurable bacterial disease that threatens not only Florida's $9 billion orange crop, but the world's as well. He said that while peaches and blueberries are a partial solution for farmers, "nothing can replace the citrus industry" in Florida.

Putnam began his formal remarks by reiterating as he has for several years why he left the comforts of a safe congressional seat (and where many believed he was being groomed for leadership) to return to Florida and run for Agriculture Commissioner. He said while many people wonder why he would do such a thing, none of them were members of the House. "They got it," he says of his former colleagues and their shared unhappiness with the continuing dysfunction of Washington. "This guy is getting out at the right time" he said was their general consensus. He added he doesn't understand why the enmity is so strong in politics these days. "You're an idiot if you don't work across the aisle," he said with disdain. "I mean, nobody gets 100 percent of what they want anyway."

Though several members of the audience said they wished he was running for governor, there was no discussion of the fact that Putnam will be on the state-wide ballot next year running for re-election for his cabinet position. Retired Army veteran Thaddeus Hamilton is the only Democrat who has filed to run against Putnam so far.

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