Brownback, Moran wrong on wind tax credits

In the following commentary, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and U.S. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas make the case for extending the production tax credit (PTC) for the production of electrical power by wind.

The PTC pays generators of wind power 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour produced. To place that in context, a typical Westar customer in Kansas that uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours in the summer pays $95.22 (before local sales tax), for a rate of 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. (This is the total cost including energy charge, fuel charge, transmission charge, environment cost recovery rider, property tax surcharge, and franchise fee, according to a March 2010 illustration provided by Westar.) So 2.2 cents is a high rate of subsidy for a product that sells for 9.5 cents.

The authors contend that the PTC is necessary to let the wind power industry “complete its transformation from being a high tech startup to becoming cost competitive in the energy marketplace.” The problem with this line of argument is that wind is not an industry in its infancy. The PTC has been in place since 1992, a period of twenty years. If an industry can’t get established in that period, when will it be ready to stand in its own?

The authors also contend that canceling the PTC is, in effect, a “tax hike on wind energy companies.” To some extent this is true — but only because the industry has enjoyed preferential tax treatment that it should never have received, coupled with a misunderstanding of the tax credit mechanism.

The proper way to view the PTC is as a government spending program. That’s the true economic effect of tax credits. Only recently are Americans coming to realize this, and as a result, the term “tax expenditures” is coming into use to accurately characterize the mechanism of tax credits.

Amazingly, Brownback and Moran do not realize this, at least if we take them at their written word when they write: “But the wind PTC is a winning solution because it allows companies to keep more of their own dollars in exchange for the production of energy. These are not cash handouts; they are reductions in taxes that help cover the cost of doing business.” (Emphasis added.)

It is the mixing of spending programs with taxation that leads these politicians to wrongly claim that tax credits are not cash handouts. Fortunately, not everyone falls for this seductive trap. In an excellent article on the topic that appeared in Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine, Edward D. Kleinbard explains:

Specialists term these synthetic government spending programs “tax expenditures.” Tax expenditures are really spending programs, not tax rollbacks, because the missing tax revenues must be financed by more taxes on somebody else. Like any other form of deficit spending, a targeted tax break without a revenue offset simply means more deficits (and ultimately more taxes); a targeted tax break coupled with a specific revenue “payfor” means that one group of Americans is required to pay (in the form of higher taxes) for a subsidy to be delivered to others through the mechanism of the tax system. … Tax expenditures dissolve the boundaries between government revenues and government spending. They reduce both the coherence of the tax law and our ability to conceptualize the very size and activities of our government. (The Hidden Hand of Government Spending, Fall 2010)

U.S. Representative Mike Pompeo of Wichita recognized the cost of paying for tax credit expenditures when he recently wrote: “Moreover, what about the jobs lost because everyone else’s taxes went up to pay for the subsidy and to pay for the high utility bills from wind-powered energy? There will be no ribbon-cuttings for those out-of-work families.” See Mike Pompeo: We need capitalism, not cronyism.

So when Brownback and Moran write of the loss of income to those who profit from wind power, we should remember that these profits do not arise from transactions between willing partners. Instead, they result from politicians like these who are willing to override the judgment of free people and free markets with their own political preferences — along with looking out for the parochial interests of the home state. We need less of this type of wind power.

Strengthening our Nation’s Domestic Energy Supply

By Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and U.S. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas.

The increasing cost of conducting business in the United States threatens innovation and investment in new technologies. In today’s unstable business environment, American industries are understandably reluctant to invest the time and resources necessary to grow their businesses. This is especially true for domestic energy production.

Energy production is one of the most highly regulated markets in the United States today. Government policies are hurting our country’s ability to compete within the global economy, limiting our domestic energy supply and driving up the cost of energy for consumers. To ensure Kansans have access to a reliable and affordable supply of energy, we must develop more of our nation’s natural resources.

One resource that is plentiful in Kansas is wind. Our state has the second highest wind resource potential in our country and leads the nation in wind production capacity currently under construction. If we expect the wind energy industry to provide for our country’s future energy needs and make long-term investments in their businesses, Congress must reauthorize the wind production tax credit (PTC) that expires this year. By extending the wind PTC, Congress will allow the wind industry to complete its transformation from being a high tech startup to becoming cost competitive in the energy marketplace. Failure to do so will result in a tax hike on wind energy companies and will only further delay this industry’s ability to compete.

There are those who view government intervention in the energy sector as picking winners and losers. But the wind PTC is a winning solution because it allows companies to keep more of their own dollars in exchange for the production of energy. These are not cash handouts; they are reductions in taxes that help cover the cost of doing business. Unlike President Obama’s failed stimulus plan that rewards individual, unproven companies like Solyndra with cash handouts, the wind PTC is an industry tax credit that has led to $20 billion in annual private investment in our energy infrastructure.

Today, the American wind industry includes more than 400 manufacturing facilities in 43 states. In 2005, just 25 percent of the value of a wind turbine was produced in the United States compared to more than 60 percent today. Because of their close proximity to wind farms, American workers can produce the critical components at a lower cost than their European and Asian counterparts. As more components are manufactured in the United States and not overseas, the cost to produce electricity from wind farms will be further driven down.

If the wind PTC is allowed to expire, local economies across our state will suffer. Kansas counties will lose $3.7 million in annual payments from wind companies. Kansas landowners will lose nearly $4 million annually in additional income they earn from leasing or selling their land for wind farms. And every Kansan will ultimately be affected because the power generated by these wind facilities contributes to our supply of electricity. By eliminating additional sources of electricity, utility rates will climb.

To meet our country’s energy needs and remain competitive in the global market, Congress must develop a national energy policy. Recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated once again the importance of having access to an ample domestic energy supply so we are less dependent on foreign sources. If Congress fails, Kansans will soon be paying much higher energy prices — for the gas to fill up our cars, for the fuel to power our farm equipment, and for the electricity to turn on our lights.

Temporarily extending the wind PTC is not about picking winners and losers — it is about preparing our country to meet our growing energy demand. Rather than make it more difficult for the private sector to develop energy sources, we should lower taxes, reduce regulations, and allow the private sector to succeed in the free market. In turn, the wind industry will grow and become fully competitive — no longer needing the wind PTC. By strengthening American energy production, our country’s future will be stronger and more secure.