Dark money group spent $1.25 million on TV ads supporting bill imposing new fee on solar panels

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Solar panels on the Johnson County Health and Human Services building. — photo courtesy of Janelle Rettig

A dark money group spent $1.25 million on TV ads in just six weeks to support bills in the Iowa legislature that would let utility companies impose new fees on homeowners and businesses that install solar panels. That group, the REAL Coalition of Iowa, was incorporated on Jan. 23, apparently to support the bills.

Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland, a political news site, determined the amount spent by the REAL Coalition on TV advertising in March and April by examining Federal Communication Commission documents about political ad buys. Belin also reported that the group spent more than $11,000 on targeted Facebook ads.

As Belin noted, that is “a lot to spend in a six-week period, even for a deep-pocketed corporation or trade group.”

Because the REAL Coalition is structured as 501(c)(4) nonprofit business entity, it is not required to disclose its members or sources of funding (which is why such nonprofits are known as “dark money groups”).

The only person named in the group’s incorporation papers filed with the Iowa Secretary of State is Steven Wandros, a Des Moines attorney who is listed as the REAL Coalition’s registered agent. Wandros has said that even though his name is on the incorporation papers, another attorney at his firm actually handled the matter, and he knows almost nothing about the group, the Energy News Network reported.

REAL Coalition supported bills that would let utilities impose a tariff on people and businesses who install solar panels in exchange for allowing those customers access to the energy grid. Because the group did not exist before such bills were filed in the Iowa Senate and House, and hasn’t lobbied on any other issue, it’s been widely assumed the group is funded by utilities, including MidAmerican Energy Company and Alliant Energy.

MidAmerican worked closely with the legislators who wrote the bills, and this week the Energy and Policy Institute reported that the ad buying agency that REAL Coalition used for its television ads is the same agency that MidAmerican uses to buy its TV ads.

MidAmerican issued a statement in March in response to questions about whether it is funding the REAL Coalition. The utility neither confirmed nor denied its involvement with the group, but said it was supportive of its goals: “We are supportive of organizations that also stand for customer fairness and other smart energy policies, as the REAL Coalition does.”

MidAmerican has claimed it supports the bills out of a sense of fairness. “Currently, the costs of building, operating and maintaining the electric grid are recovered through a monthly energy charge,” the utility said in a Feb. 21 statement. “Customers who own solar and generate their own energy don’t pay as much — or any — energy charge.”

The utility company estimates that its customers with solar panels are saving an average of $328 a year, compared to customers without solar panels. It wants to be able to charge customers with solar panels that amount, or a similar amount, each year.

Environmental groups, and businesses involved in the sale and installation of solar panels, oppose the bills. They contend that utilities are already extremely profitable (MidAmerican had a net revenue of $605 million in 2018), and a new tariff would serve as a “sunshine tax,” discouraging Iowans from installing solar panels.

The Senate passed its version of bill SF583 on a vote of 28-18. Every Democrat, except Sen. Jim Lykam of Davenport, voted against it. Three Republicans — Sen. Brad Zaun of Urbandale, Sen. Tom Greene of Burlington and Sen. Tim Kapucian of Keystone — joined the Democrats in opposing the bill. SF583 was sent to the House, which failed to act on the bill before the end of this year’s legislative session. But because it did pass the Senate, the bill remains “alive,” and it need only be passed by the House next year before it’s sent to the governor to be signed.

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In addition to its ad campaigns on TV and social media, the REAL Coalition also ran a telemarketing-style campaign in support of SF583, as Little Village reported in March. Callers working from scripts asked Iowans for permission to use their names on automated messages telling legislators to vote for the bill.

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