Maine voters have heard a lot lately about Angus King’s time as governor, whether from anti-King television ads or from his supporters.
They will soon get an earful about his recent career as a wind power entrepreneur, too.
Maine Republicans have been turning up their criticism of the independent Senate candidate as a politically-connected wind farm developer who profited from the same federal loan program that supported Solyndra, a bankrupt solar energy company that has become a buzzword in the GOP campaign against President Obama.
Republican Charlie Summers’ Senate campaign used a recent poll to test the views of voters on wind power and federal subsidies, an indicator of what will be targeted in future ads and news releases.
And a national GOP insider wrote in The Washington Post two weeks ago that King’s wind career is the next line of attack against the frontrunner.
“In addition to being the ‘King of Spending,’ look for Republicans to crown the former governor as the ‘King of Wind’ and the ‘King of Cronyism,’ ” Marc Thiessen wrote in a column about the Maine race.
Republican criticism of the wind deal comes as no surprise, though it’s not clear how much turbulence it could create for for King.
There are impassioned wind power critics around the state who could be motivated to vote against King on that issue alone. On the other hand, Mainers in general like wind power and support government incentives for renewable energy, according to a June poll by the Portland Press Herald.
TAX BILLS LOWERED BY 59 PERCENT
In fact, support is especially enthusiastic right now in the community around King’s wind turbines.
The roughly 400 residents in the Oxford County town of Roxbury got new tax bills in August that are 59 percent lower than their last bills, the direct result of the $120 million Record Hill wind project developed there by King’s former company. The project created an instant commercial tax base for the town and reduced the tax rate from $16.86 per thousand dollars of property value to $6.93.
Each Roxbury household is also receiving a $111 check from the company every three months to cover the cost of electricity as a way to provide a state-mandated “tangible benefit” to the community. The amount of the checks will change as the electricity price goes up and down.
Town Clerk Renee Hodsdon said she has never seen such big smiles on people coming in to pay their taxes.
“It’s awesome. There’s no word for it, really,” said Hodsdon. “(Much) of our population is on fixed incomes. This is a great help to them.”
King and his former partner at Independence Wind say the tax relief and quarterly checks are two examples of the project fulfilling the promises made during the long and contentious development process.
The town of Roxbury narrowly voted in favor of allowing the wind project before opponents challenged the project in court. Independence Wind eventually prevailed and the 22 ridge-top turbines began operating in March. King clearly made some enemies in the process, and the tax relief hasn’t appeased everyone.
“I think a lot of people when they saw these things go up were just shocked, speechless at the impact these things have had on the landscape,” said Steve Thurston, a part-time Roxbury residents and co-chair of the Citizens Task Force on Windpower. “To the people that voted for it, he’s wearing a white hat and to the people that opposed this project, he’s a bad guy.”
Thurston said a portion of the tax benefits won’t last because the town’s new commercial tax base will eventually mean less education funding from the state and a bigger share of the county tax bill.
GOP SEES WIND POWER AS AN ISSUE
Republicans, meanwhile, say King’s wind business could become an important issue for voters well outside of Roxbury.
It highlights the difference between King and Summers, said Lance Dutson, Summers’ campaign manager. Summers believes the government should get out of the way and let the market sort out which energy technologies are viable and move forward, Dutson said.
“Wealthy people getting million-dollar loan guarantees from the federal government fits perfectly into that discussion,” he said. “(King’s company) had the money on the table and took it off and opted to shift the risk to taxpayers.”
Independence Wind got a $102 million federal loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build Record Hill.
The guarantee, which is intended to enourage investments in innovative green energy, means taxpayers would have to repay the loan if Independence Wind goes bankrupt.
Solyndra had a $535 million loan guarantee, and its bankruptcy last year turned the incentive program into a hot political issue at the national level. It also led to criticism of the other projects, including King’s.
The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform raised questions in March about whether Record Hill qualified for the support and whether the developers even needed government backing to move forward. The Republican-led committee has not yet issued a final report, and a spokesman said last week the review is ongoing.
The Maine Republican Party criticized King’s wind deal in one of its email blasts last week. “While Angus King was … getting sweetheart loan guarantees for millions (and) his businesses profited off the backs of taxpayers and ratepayers, Charlie Summers was working to take care of his family, just like you and I,” it said.
KING SOLD STAKE IN COMPANY
King sold his stake in Independence Wind to his former partner two days before the committee’s initial report was issued. He has dismissed questions about the timing, saying he had decided to divest to avoid any conflicts of interest while running for the Senate.
King’s net profit from the sale was $69,000, according to his campaign spokeswoman.
“This project brought $40 million into the Maine economy,” Crystal Canney, a spokesperson, said in a statement. “This project is already providing benefits to the local community.”
King said last week he was proud that the project has not caused environmental damage to Roxbury Pond, one of the concerns of neighbors. And he and others pointed out there have been no complaints about noise from the turbines, as some feared.
Robert Gardiner, King’s former partner, said Record Hill is no Solyndra.
“We’re not defaulting at all. We’re paying back our loan,” he said. “Based on how it’s working, there is absolute certainty that we will pay off our loan.”
Gardiner also said Record Hill was clearly qualified for the loan program, and that it would not have been built without the guarantee.
“We should be the poster boy for that program’s success,” he said. “I’m sure that people can find some fault in Angus, but the Record Hill wind project is not the place they are going to find fault.”
Whether there is fault to find or not, the controversy surrounding wind power and the political heat surrounding Solyndra make King’s wind career a big target for his critics, said Mark Brewer, associate professor of political science at the University of Maine.
“To speak objectively, there’s not a whole lot that you can go after King on. This is one of those targets that immediately presents itself,” he said. “(Solyndra) got a fair amount of attention, and not positive attention, and if you can somehow tie any candidate to that, that’s not good for the candidate.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding