Brownback on wind, again

This week Kansas Governor Sam Brownback again made the case for government spending on a particular industry. The industry is wind power, and the governor made his remarks at a national conference of the wind industry.

The wind industry, with Brownback’s support, wants to extend the production tax credit (PTC) for the production of electrical power by wind. In March Brownback and U.S. Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas wrote an op-ed making the case for extending the PTC. At the conference this week, Brownback called for extending the PTC, although he did support a four-year phaseout.

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.

Brownback and Moran 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.


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