Strickland profits from 'green' patronage in Ohio

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Gov. Ted Strickland stood to the side of the podium as the CEO who was hosting the press conference introduced him as “a friend of the industry.”

The room was full of Democrats, who usually consider “friend of the industry” a dire insult. But the industry in question was renewable energy and conservation. When Strickland stepped behind the podium, wearing a green tie, he was flanked by CEOs from leading solar and wind companies.

On one level, this event was great politics for Strickland: He got to talk about creating jobs and helping the environment, thus playing to labor, liberal, and business constituencies.

But from another perspective, the event could be seen as brazen patronage — Strickland was subsidizing businesses with the tax dollars and the electricity bills of his constituents, and the subsidized CEOs were supporting Strickland's re-election. It was another glimpse of the odd new world of “green jobs” in which Democrats outflank Republicans on the “pro-business” line and openly give handouts to campaign contributors. Everything is hunky-dory because it's green.

Strickland's Republican challenger, former Rep. John Kasich, suggested to the Dayton Daily News this week that he would consider repealing one of Strickland's signature accomplishments — SB 221, which requires Ohio utilities to draw a portion of their electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar, with the mandate hitting 25 percent by 2025.

Kasich said of the bill, “It will drive up utility bills because we don't have [the renewable sources] ready and have to buy it somewhere else. I don't like that and you can't mandate invention.”

The governor, confident that green jobs were a winner whatever the cost, quickly called a press conference at the Columbus headquarters of the Design Group, an architect specializing in “sustainable buildings” that require less energy and water use.

Greg Kuss, CEO of Solar Vision, also stood behind Strickland. “If it weren't for Senate Bill 221,” Kuss told me, “we wouldn't be in business.” A former oil and gas man, Kuss is now in an industry he says is utterly dependent on government mandates and subsidies. “None of these people up there would be around,” Kuss said, pointing to the other wind and solar magnates.

In addition to SB 221, Strickland has passed legislation exempting renewable energy projects from property taxes, and created grant programs for green energy. “We wish him well,” Kuss says, “because he's for us.”

Eric Zimmer, CEO of Tipping Point Renewable Energy, also stood behind Strickland on Wednesday. His company, based in Dublin, Ohio, develops solar energy products. Zimmer said his business couldn't survive without Strickland's mandate.

At least two of the pro-Strickland executives had driven to the event in hybrid cars, and the Design Group's headquarters had a funky, modern look. But strip away the superficialities – including Strickland's green tie – and you had a governor, standing in a corporate headquarters side-by-side with corporate executives, fighting for subsidies for these businesses.

Strickland is one of the leaders in the “green energy” and “green jobs” push, but he's also reading from the same page as President Obama, speaking the language that Chamber of Commerce Republicans typically speak. Strickland touted SB 221 as spurring “innovation and job creation,” and bringing lots of “investment” to the state. Strickland also declared himself “on the side of progress and advancement.”

While Strickland wouldn't give specifics, he said he plans to unveil a big new solar project in the state — surely encouraged by special subsidies.

The green subsidies are one species of the typical state and city government game of bidding for new businesses with incentives and handouts, in the name of job creation. This game increases deficits while causing higher taxes and costs for less politically favored businesses. But these costs get hidden, while the benefits – a shiny new factory making solar panels and employing a few dozen people – are in plain sight.

Despite the green coloring and the job-creation rhetoric, it's still corporate welfare, and borderline patronage. With these subsidies, Strickland won over the CEOs who stood with him Wednesday, as well as other big businesses. Nuclear-heavy Duke Energy has given $7,395 to Strickland's re-election. Honeywell, a major manufacturer that installs solar panels, has chipped in $11,395, topping the list of Strickland's corporate donors.

Like any politician this year, Strickland says he's creating jobs for Ohioans – but his green subsidies may be aimed mostly at saving his own job.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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