Journalism in the Public Interest

Big Electric Companies Behind ‘Grassroots’ Ad Campaign in Florida

Defend My Dividend calls itself a grassroots campaign to halt a dividend tax hike. But the group’s ad buys are linked to trade groups for utilities and other dividend-paying companies.


A screenshot from an ad paid for by the dark money group Defend My Dividend.

Oct. 15: This story has been updated with comments from the Edison Electric Institute.

Since August, a dark money group called Defend My Dividend has spent nearly $90,000 running ads on South Florida TV stations warning seniors about a looming increase in the tax rate on dividends.

"You worked hard, saved for retirement, and dividends are a big part of it," says one of the ads, which Defend My Dividend has posted on YouTube. "But if President Obama and Congress don't act this year, tax rates on dividends will spike, almost tripling in some cases." Time is running out, the ad intones, as phone numbers for Obama and Congress appear on the screen.

The spot directs viewers to a website that gives few hints about the group behind the ads, which is described as a "national grassroots advocacy campaign."

But there are indications the group is more Astroturf than grassroots: The website is maintained by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for big dividend-paying electric companies.

According to television ad contracts obtained as part of ProPublica's Free the Files project, the contact person listed for some of the Florida ad buys was Stephanie Voyda, the institute's director. On many contracts, the Alliance for Savings & Investment, a group that represents dividend-paying companies, is listed as a co-buyer with Defend My Dividend.

Voyda did not respond to repeated requests for comment from ProPublica. Neither did Jim McCrery, a lobbyist and former Louisiana representative who serves as the manager of the alliance.

Tax analysts say electric utilities and other companies are concerned that the tax change could damage their stock prices. Dividends have been taxed at 15 percent since 2003, but the tax will rise unless Congress acts before the end of the year to extend cuts made under President George W. Bush. The Alliance for Savings & Investment successfully lobbied against a hike in dividend taxes in 2010.

The Defend My Dividend ads have run in Miami and West Palm Beach, two markets known for their large population of retirees. Curtis Dubay, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, said the strategy made sense.

"Florida has the highest proportion of retirees, who rely on dividends," he said.

Ryan Rudominer, the Edison Electric Institute's executive director for communications, confirmed that Defend My Dividend, which he said had been formed in 2008, was targeting seniors in Florida.

"Paid ads have been running on national cable television, in print publications, and in select regional markets," he said in an email. "South Florida has a strong concentration of senior citizens and retirees that rely on dividend income and would be negatively impacted by the looming dividend tax hike."

Asked about Defend My Dividend's claim to be a grassroots campaign, Rudominer said the group had "generated hundreds of thousands of emails and phone calls from concerned citizens to their elected officials urging them to stop a dividend tax hike."

It's unclear how much the typical retiree would be affected if the Bush tax cuts are not extended. In that case, dividends would be taxed as ordinary income, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center and a former tax analyst for the Congressional Budget Office.

In February, Obama proposed taxing dividends as regular income only for those who make at least $250,000 a year. Along with the 3.8 percent surtax on high earners in the health care law, dividends could be taxed as high as 43.4 percent for that subset of people — the source of the ad's assertion that the dividend tax could triple.

"My guess is that the tax changes would disproportionately hit high-income individuals rather than older individuals," Williams said.

Seniors who hold dividend-paying stocks in IRAs or 401(k)s wouldn't be affected at all, he added, because dividends accrued in such accounts are already taxed as regular income when money is withdrawn.

Defend My Dividend's ads are clearly aimed at seniors, however. They feature older couples prominently and warn that a tax hike will have the effect of "squeezing seniors and families."

Edison Electric Institute, which is incorporated as a 501(c)(6) trade group and does not have to disclose its donors, has driven home similar messages about the potential tax change in other venues as well.

Its chairman, Lewis Hay III, who is also the executive chairman of NextEra Energy, a Florida power company, wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in July with the headline "The Tax Cliff Endangers Seniors." Hay, McCrery and Sandy Callahan, the chief financial officer of TECO Energy, another Florida-based power company, have written similar op-eds promoting Defend My Dividend for several Florida newspapers in recent weeks. Hay did not respond to requests for an interview.

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 15, 2012, 3:35 p.m.

So, what is so wrong with NOT wanting a tax? Without the power companies’ influence, do you think any not for profit group would get that many ads out there for the public to view? I am wondering what is so wrong with providing a population with electricity at a profit. Without electricity we are back in the stone age, especially now since we are so addicted to all of our fine labor saving appliances.

With all the baby boomers retiring, the tax base is shrinking since those of us in the “middle class” are squeezed a little to much and inflation is taking away anything I might want to stick back and save for some other day.

If anyone thinks it will be vastly different after a new POTUS is installed the problems will not just disappear by majic. Obamacare has more taxes installed in it and more problems and all of our reps voted on it without reading it. Do not kid yourself, Obamacare is not going to go away. It was not written by our legislators. This in NOT how our form of government was supposed to work!

Get ready my fellow citizens for a USSA worker’s paradise! Our central government has totally gone off the rails as far as many issues go. We were once a great nation of independant people that were just that, independant! Now we look to the central, federal, crown, whatever you want to call it to be right in our daily business because we are not up to the standards of the ruling committie, we don’t know what is best for ourselves. We depend on our government for our retirement, our medicaid, medicare, nursing home care, then finally, hospice.

Our economy is propped up with rotting timbers and the sand is blowing away at the bottom of them!

This is an exemplary effort by the income producing company to work
to preserve the income stream for their valued stockholders, most of which are retired and depend on the dividend for their retirement income.
This is American economics at its best.
Retired individuals planned years ahead to set aside the dividends from their investments as their retirement income stream.
It is criminal to steal it from them!

This is outstanding citizenship by quality American companies to depend the rights of their shareholders.
Responsible retired individuals, that have planned ahead for income in their retirement years.

This whole business of allowing donors to contribute to political campaigns with complete anonymity is just disgusting. Congress isn’t going to fix it, and the SCOTUS effectively allows it to happen.

The plutocracy is pretty much complete now. I despair.

Huh, wonder if they are customers of the liars and scumbags at APCO?

I’m getting so I look to see who donates to what front groups before doing business with them - and when I say “doing business”, I mean all the way down to buying tgoods and services…even eating in a place of business.

I mean, c’mon…if you’re donating your hard-earned cash to a front group like “the Employment Policies Institute” or “Crossroads GPS” (and I could run quite a list) - that is, you are willingly and knowingly funding and supporting the kind of lies they tell - then I would have to be crazy to trust your word, contracts, guarantees, warranties…or make any assumptions about you ingredients, food sanitation, or employee cleanliness.

lolll…and I may be half-mad half the time with rage at what the right does, but I don’t think I’m clinically insane.  Yet.

Sorry but who is Kaley Cuoco and what does “Fashion Fails of the Week” have to do with this story?

John Henry….............the reason Big Electric companies do such a thing is because Mr. Obama is supporting Renewable Energy. And that is a threat to their monopoly. This monopoly is threatened if you, as a consumer of electricity, put your own electrical generating system on your roof. And if thousands do this their “profit” will be challenged. Think outside the box here. The end consumer, you and me, benefit if solar energy production supplies us with all of the electricity we need. No profit and no taxes.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 18, 2012, 6:43 a.m.

hljmesa, I fully understand that. I would rather that our coal miners and industry that employs and supports many thousands of jobs directly and indirectly be employed.

I was employed, indirectly many years ago in the coal industry. I was UMWA and I must tell you I loved the work. People seem to loose grasp that these coal mines that are so “evil” employ many real decent hard working citizens of our great nation. Strike that, our once great nation.

I would also rather not see our tax dollars all basketweaved into every industry. This is no good for our economy.

Yes, I can live off of the grid if I want to. The problem is, some of our government people really don’t want us doing that. I could invest enough and unplug from everything and live right where I live now. I have the skillset to do it myself, even.

Do I want to make the investment? No, I don’t.

I would rather buy my electrical needs from a power company and see my neighbors employed that buy solar panels and know that some Chinese government owned company was getting richer off of my investment.


John, then I recommend going after your Congressman to stop the tax benefits of offshoring work.  Why is everything made in China?  Because a foreign subsidiary of an American company doesn’t pay taxes unless the company decides to move the money stateside.  Everybody since the Kennedy administration has been on board for that.

The existing laws encourage moving jobs out of the country AND moving money out of the country, and we wonder why we’re having trouble making ends meet and how China has become a banana republic in a dominant position..

Add Free Trade (to eliminate the possibility of tariffs that might reclaim some of that money) to the mix, and the results are obvious.

hljmesa, I don’t think that’s the case.  Obama talks a good game, but the easiest win in alternative energy would be to call Detroit on its electric vehicle crap.  It shouldn’t cost two to three times to buy a car made with fewer, easier to manufacture parts.  Batteries aren’t nearly as expensive as they claim, and their supply/demand argument is a sham (if it’s too expensive because of low production, MAKE MORE, idiots).  He could also talk up the work at NASA Ames in biofuels and solar/wind.

At the end of the day, he’s just another Nixon:  A lot of talk about dependence on foreign oil, but programs that manage to leave us dependent.

John Henry….......John…hit the nail on the head with his hammer,, that being the off shoring of American JOBS.  I can add nothing to what he has said as he is exactly right.
As to coal..well it will be with us for a long time..the sun does not shine at night and wind is in the same position. But daytime use is another issue and so coal use in the day time will be decreased over time but never eliminated.
John…with the election of Mr. Obama 4 years ago, new tax credits were created that allowed me to put solar panels on my home. A 1 time tax credit for an American. That was a good thing. But as far as the GM Volt fiasco, yes, it should not be supported since Toyota has a leg up on GM and GM will never catch up..EV 1 failure and Bob Lutz.
Solar panels video here:
At the time of purchase, my panels were being made in Canada, Canadian Solar.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 18, 2012, 9:41 p.m.

John, you are right. The current ideal in this country is a large retail outlet that other retail outlets are modeling themselves after. Why is that? Because WE want lower priced goods. We want the big box store stuff!
There are more things destroying our country besides the government imploding.

I don’t vote…er uh…buy anything at that outlet.

We have the workforce, we have the raw materials, we have the resources. Why would a city, state or federal funded bridge be built by who? The Chinese. There are government concerns in our own country that claim they cannot find welders to weld these bridges together. So why would they take our tax dollars, our livelyhood and give it to imported workers, then later on , build a tollbooth possibly to maintain these bridges? All the while eliminating jobs. Under our current leadership, there have been more jobs eliminated per capita than at any point in history, IF you could get accurate numbers, which it seems is also now a politcal football…er uh golfball…

Talk about a bridge to nowhere? Well, I say these bridges that are being built are certainly bridges to somewhere we DON’T want to go.

I wonder sometimes if critical thinking is totally a thing of the past generations in our country. There is no app for that.

John, as for the vehicle issue, why build the Volt as it is billed? Simply put, because there are automotive shops that were retrofitting hybrid Toyotas and Hondas and Nissans to be plugged in overnight. These companies did not respond to the market, but GM did with the Volt.

Well, it failed, and miserably.

The reason for the failure is manyfold. Not because it was a crappy car, either. Another discussion for another day. I’ll glady educate anyone that is truly intrested in discovering the hybrid car deboggle. I am well qualified to do so.



Interesting…the comments have drifted into generalized attacks upon vehicles which have been serving to undercut the ability of Big Carbon to maintain their stranglehold on energy…oh, and fund the right/Republicans and all of the latter’s attempts to replace democracy with totalitarianism.

While some might say the latter is moot from the perspective of the article, the reality is Big Carbon and the Republicans are a package deal.  One of the best ways to protect the children of America?  Keep buying those electric vehicles…keep knocking petroleum sales down…keep weakening Big Oil’s ability to fund the Republicans…keep eliminating the Republicans’ ability to sucker us into wars in the Middle East…

Cut your consumption of gasoline and you will set America free from the Republicans and Big Oil.  <b>Free at last!<b>

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 19, 2012, 6:40 a.m.

Steve, believe what you want to believe.
What difference does it make if the boot on your neck is a right boot or a left boot?

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 19, 2012, 6:52 a.m.

Steve, I can get very specific about automobiles, if you would like. I am qualified to converse with anyone on the subject about the carbon footprint of the modern hybrid cars.

Lacking a magic wand, I am of necessity a pragmatist.  I also don’t sell bicycles.

I think some of you are missing the info in this story.
If your telling me that people invested in stocks 30 years ago because they felt tax on dividends would never change then that is not a good argument at all, if they sign’d up when tax was 60% then should we instead charge them what it was at that point, I don’t think so.

This is another story about how some group is going to use Wal-Mart style mentality to make old people think they will be better off, when there is a chance that those getting $200,000 worth of dividends may not have even one extra penny taken off of them.

If Granny is taking home $50k today, and after the changes takes home $50k then does that put you at ease?... Get some numbers behind it for specific earners and I doubt most people would not argue.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Free the Files

Free the Files

Outside groups are spending hundreds of millions to influence the coming elections. Help unlock outside spending by "freeing" political ad buys from television stations in swing markets.

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