The North Carolina State Legislative Building in Raleigh. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Campaign donations from the company’s PAC match closely with last year’s vote on Senate Bill 559.

It was August of last year, and North Carolina Rep. Elmer Floyd was the last to defend a controversial ratemaking bill backed by Duke Energy. 

An amendment gutting the measure’s most contentious section was on the verge of passage on the House floor. Floyd rose to argue it should have been offered in the public utilities committee first.

“I can’t support this amendment when it had the opportunity to be [run] in utility,” the sixth-term lawmaker told his colleagues. With four other members of the Legislative Black Caucus, one other Democrat, and 45 Republicans, Floyd pressed the red button. 

It was a faint attempt to salvage the widely panned legislation that permitted Duke to seek upfront, multi-year rate increases. It failed: The amendment passed, and lawmakers later approved just the first section of Senate Bill 559, which allowed Duke to recoup storm-repair costs with bonds backed by ratepayers, a mechanism called securitization. 

But Floyd’s actions appeared to be enough to draw Duke’s backing in his March 3 primary, where he ran in a newly drawn district against political newcomer Kimberly Hardy. 

Duke’s political action committee gave him $5,400 in the run-up to Super Tuesday. A separate political committee called a 527, run by former longtime Duke employees, poured at least $13,940 into television ads promoting the Fayetteville lawmaker.

Floyd wasn’t alone. The same 527 group ran ads supporting another lawmaker, Republican Steve Jarvis, who also ran in a tight primary. Filings with election officials show the company’s PAC spent over $300,000 on 77 legislative candidates this year, including 13 Democrats. 

The PAC contributions were “Duke Energy showing people they had their backs,” said Dan Crawford, the director of government relations at the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters.

With few exceptions, the dozens of Duke-funded candidates supported S559, opposed the amendment converting its most contentious provision into a study, or sought to unseat lawmakers who voted against the legislation. Most got the maximum allowable contribution, $5,400 — whether or not they had a primary.

‘Duke Energy … had their backs’

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a chief advocate of S559, represents a heavily Democratic district in Raleigh and had no primary challenger: He got $5,400. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans in safe districts with no primaries, also got the maximum.

Conservative Republican Rep. Larry Strickland, the author of the amendment Floyd failed to stop, got nothing from Duke. Nor did the influential Rep. John Szoka, the Republican co-chair of the public utilities committee who voted with Strickland and could face a tight race in the fall.

Two Senate Republican candidates backed by Duke are former lawmakers looking to regain their seats in November; their success in these swing districts could determine control of the General Assembly. Former Sen. Wesley Meredith got $5,400 and will take on sitting Sen. Kirk deViere of Fayetteville, a Democrat who voted against S559. “I fully suspect that will be the [Republican] Senate caucus’s number one target,” Crawford said.

Sen. Harper Peterson, a Democrat from Wilmington, will likely have the second closest race, Crawford said. So outspoken against S559 was Peterson that before a speech on the Senate floor he joked, “Let me start by saying I hope my comments do not cause Duke Energy to turn off my electric service.”

The utility didn’t do that, of course. But its PAC did give Peterson’s Republican opponent, former Sen. Mike Lee, $5,400.

Asked about all the PAC contributions aligning so closely to S559 vote counts, spokesperson Grace Rountree responded by email. “The employee-led Duke PAC has a long history of supporting state and federal candidates on both sides of the aisle whose positions on energy issues align with employees’ views,” she said.

‘All the ads you want’

If the PAC contributions show Duke willing to reward or punish lawmakers no matter how tight their elections, the television ads show Duke-aligned operatives willing to spend big in close races to support candidates of their choosing.

Floyd, the 527-group ad said, passed “a new law to keep power bills low in our community,” referring to the securitization section that passed the General Assembly unanimously in October. The announcer in the ad continued, “hurricane-related power billing cut by up to 20%.” 

“We were surprised to see that TV go up,” Crawford said. “It was a sizable buy for an ad in the Democratic primary,” he added, especially to reach a few thousand voters in Cumberland County an hour south of the Raleigh stations.

Conservation Votes PAC, a political committee connected to Crawford’s group, responded with more mailers to District 43 voters, overall spending $13,740 on Hardy’s behalf. Ultimately, she edged out Floyd by 743 votes — Duke’s only loss from earlier this month.

The Duke-linked 527 also spent at least $8,330 on television ads in the Triad to promote Rep. Steve Jarvis against Sen. Eddie Gallimore of Davidson County, who voted “no” on S559 once and “yes” months later. The spots called Jarvis a “real conservative” in part because he “votes to keep power bills low.” Jarvis won with 53% of the vote.

The claims in the ads are strained at best: Experts believe securitization will save ratepayers 15% to 20% on storm-related repair costs, but that’s just one factor in electric bills and Duke is in the midst of seeking an overall rate increase. 

The ads probably didn’t make or break either race: Floyd was a moderate Democrat already facing organized opposition for supporting the Republican budget; Gallimore had lost many Senate bids before finally prevailing in 2018, the Raleigh News & Observer reported. But they could foreshadow the barrage of ads voters will see this fall as both parties vie for control of the General Assembly.

Rountree stressed no direct connection to the group who ran the ads, writing, “the company contributes to various 527 organizations whose missions we support; however, those organizations are independent, and the way they operate is also independent from their donors.” She added, “contributions Duke Energy makes to 527 organizations are disclosed both through the organizations’ required reporting and on the company’s website.”

Still, the president of the group, called Citizens for a Responsible Energy Future,  is Tony Almeida, a former longtime Duke executive (and key advisor to former Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who himself worked for Duke for 28 years.) Its treasurer is Scott Gardner, who worked for the company for 32 years.

Documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission show the committee reserved airtime for at least $111,000 worth of ads promoting Floyd and Jarvis and spent about a fifth of that.

Securing such time without using it isn’t uncommon, said Daniel Gilligan, the director of Real Facts North Carolina, a progressive messaging and research nonprofit. “You can order all the ads you want,” he said.

The 527 group hasn’t registered with state election officials or filed any expense reports. “You’re not looking in the wrong place,” Patrick Gannon, spokesperson for the State Board of Elections, told the Energy News Network. 

But in a follow-up email, he explained the group may not be in violation of the law. “We do not know enough about the group at this point to say whether it is a political committee or other entity required to file disclosure reports,” he wrote.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.