Stronger sideboards needed around Oregon’s too-generous green energy subsidies
Oregon has stopped throwing money at anyone who mouths the magic words: “Green energy.” But a three-part series in The Oregonian made it clear this week that the state must further tighten the rules – and the oversight – of its Business Energy Tax Credit program.
In our judgment, the BETC no longer is the “state-sponsored ATM machine” described by reporters Harry Esteve and Ted Sickinger. But as the reporters noted, BETC subsidies will cost Oregon’s general fund nearly $300 million over the next two years, four times what the state spent just four years ago. That’s a huge bundle of forgone tax revenue in a state struggling to pay for basic services such as a full school year.
Given the enormous cost, the green subsidies demand stronger scrutiny from lawmakers, the governor and the public than they’ve received. Former Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s energy policy – y’all come – ignored the mounting cost until hundreds of millions of dollars were committed, no small amount of it to companies that failed to live up to the promises of jobs, economic development and green energy.
Some of the worst abuses have been curbed, and the BETC is a better, tighter program than it was two years ago. But it is still disturbing to read that Oregon taxpayers are on the hook to subsidize projects such as the massive Shepherds Flat wind farm, which is awash in $1.2 billion in federal, state and local giveaways, or promising substantial credits to “developers” such as the Washington dentist and his sons tinkering with a solar project in Christmas Valley.
All that said, there remains a need for a carefully targeted and monitored BETC program. The essential goals behind the green energy subsidies – bringing manufacturers to Oregon, spurring more renewable energy development and providing incentives for weatherization and other energy conservation – remain important.
Lawmakers need to recognize how and where the BETC has been effective – wooing solar manufacturers such as SolarWorld, SoloPower and Solexant, and several thousand direct and indirect jobs, to the state – and how and where the program has been exploited. The manufacturing tax credits, which are scheduled to sunset in 2014, remain a vital economic development tool and should be renewed.
But lawmakers ought to be deeply skeptical about throwing more money at wind projects such as Shepherds Flat, which will generate a lot of renewable power for California, a lot of tax revenue to local counties, but only 35 permanent jobs for Oregon. And we still question the wisdom of allowing developers to pass-through their credits – sell them to other taxpayers for cash – which seems likely to lead to more cases where developers get cash, other businesses get tax breaks and Oregonians get the bill.
While lawmakers take a long, hard look not only at the rules that surround the green energy subsidies, they should also ask tough questions about the oversight and accountability. We don’t think it’s strong enough. It’s hardly encouraging that the Department of Energy still cannot say with certainty how many jobs are associated with the subsidies. If we’re going to toss $300 million to green energy developers every two years, we should know exactly what we’re getting in return.
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