SPIN METER: Romney championed green energy fund

Associated Press Modified: June 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm •  Published: June 13, 2012
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BOSTON (AP) — Mitt Romney slams President Barack Obama for using taxpayer dollars to pick "winners and losers" among green energy firms rather than allowing them to rise or fall in the free market. Yet as governor of Massachusetts, Romney backed a state program that targeted investments to individual green startup companies in hopes of boosting jobs and the state's revenues.

"There is nothing fair about a government that favors political connections over honest competition and takes away your right to earn your own success," Romney said in a campaign speech last week in St. Louis. And in Washington on Wednesday, he told the Business Roundtable, "I don't think the government should be investing in individual companies," adding, "I don't believe in the government picking winners."

It's an attack line the Republican presidential challenger fires at Obama over Solyndra, a solar firm that got a half-billion-dollar federal loan and was touted by the Obama administration before the company declared bankruptcy last year. Romney mocks Solyndra as a symbol of Obama's failed economic policies.

"When government rather than the market routinely selects the winners and losers, enterprises cannot predict their prospects and free enterprise is replaced with crony capitalism," Romney said in March during a speech at the University of Chicago.

As governor, however, Romney did much the same thing. He championed a $24 million green energy fund that used public money for equity capital and loans to renewable energy firms in the state. He said he hoped it would be a "major economic springboard" for the state.

Not every bet paid off. Some of the companies that received public backing under Romney, who amassed a fortune as a venture capitalist before entering politics, have since folded or have been sold at a loss.

The most recent was Konarka Technologies Inc., a Lowell, Mass.-based company that makes thin, flexible solar panels. The company, which received a $1.5 million public investment during Romney's first year as governor, in 2003, announced June 1 that it filed for bankruptcy protection, as it laid off about 80 workers.

The Konarka announcement came a day after a Romney campaign appearance at the former headquarters of Solyndra in Fremont, Calif., to portray it as a prime example of government waste and favoritism.

Ryan Williams, a Romney spokesman, said the decision to assist Konarka was made by an independent board about a month before Romney became governor.

"Gov. Romney has never believed that the government should play venture capitalist," Williams said. "President Obama has a lot of questions to answer about why he used taxpayer dollars to reward wealthy campaign donors for bad ideas like Solyndra."

Williams said since the green fund was established before he became governor, Romney's hands were largely tied.

Romney later vetoed $12.5 million from an emerging technology fund, designed to boost manufacturing in Massachusetts, because it would have let public officials pick and choose which firms to aid, Williams said. His veto was overturned by the Democratic-run Legislature.

Some of the green fund investments Romney touted as governor were made through complex financial arrangements to funnel money collected from a surcharge on electricity bills paid by utility consumers into a private venture capital fund to support local green energy companies.

The surcharges, which predated Romney's governorship, were first imposed in 1998, with the money going toward the state's Renewable Energy Trust Fund.

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