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February 22, 2018

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Lawmakers bicker over demise of Nevada solar panel company

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As hundreds of Nevadans reel from the closure of what was to be the region’s largest solar manufacturing plant, representatives in Washington are wrestling with a question: Is Amonix’s failure a black mark on President Barack Obama’s fiscal policies, or just the disastrous end of a company waylaid by personal tragedy at the top?

It depends on the party stripes of whom you ask.

“This is just another example of another failed stimulus project,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., said Thursday.

“CEO Brian Robertson was tragically killed in a plane crash,” Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. “Unfortunately, the company was unable to recover from this difficult time.”

No company’s troubles exist in a vacuum, and that goes double when your business is in the wheelhouse of one of the most hotly debated legislative ventures of the Obama era: The two-year, $787 billion stimulus adopted in the wake of the housing market crash to pump money into a sorely crippled economy.

Amonix’s North Las Vegas facility was approved for $5.9 million in federal tax credits under the stimulus plan, to underwrite early production of four 11-ton, 50-by-72 feet solar cell arrays per day — enough to power up to 30 homes and support about 300 jobs.

That tax assistance never materialized though, according to the firm, because the facility never made any money to offset through tax credits.

On that much, Republicans and Democrats agree. But Nevada’s representatives are at each other’s throats over why the company eventually failed — and whether Obama and other Democrats should have seen it coming.

Amonix received its first federal boost under President George W. Bush’s administration, when the Department of Energy awarded it $15.6 million, to be paid out over a few fiscal cycles; some of them during Bush’s years in the White House, some during Obama’s.

In May of 2011, the facility officially began production. But then just before Christmas, Robertson was killed in a plane crash. A month later, 200 workers at the facility were laid off.

Democrats maintain that chronology is key to explain why the venture failed.

“Some people will be tempted to use today’s unfortunate news for political gain,” Reid said Wednesday. “But I am hopeful that the bipartisan support for this project and the public-private partnership that helped make this and many other projects possible will not be degraded by dirty energy supporters for their own profit or political gain. The clean energy sector is too important to Nevada’s future.”

But Republicans are pointing an accusing finger toward Obama, blaming him for backing the now-failed project with stimulus tax write-offs, and sticking Obama with full blame for continuing to allow the Department of Energy to pay out $10.1 million of the $15.6 million in grants Amonix had been promised by Bush administration officials.

“Obama’s taxpayer-funded $15.6 million favor to pal Steve Westly is the definition of crony capitalism,” said Darren Littell, a Nevada spokesman for the Republican National Committee, invoking the name of the Obama bundler and clean energy venture capitalist who had a partial-stake ownership in both Amonix’s North Las Vegas facility and in the now-infamous Solyndra facility in California, which went under last year after receiving half a billion dollars’ worth of federal loan guarantees under the stimulus bill.

“With only 14 months of operation, the president’s favor cost taxpayers $1.11 million per month. Nevadans want stable, long-term job security, and today’s news is further proof that Obama doesn’t understand how to fix the economy,” Littell said.

Both the math and the accusations are a little difficult to substantiate, considering that Nevadans didn’t foot the bill alone (it was a federal program) and that the $15.6 million Amonix did receive was designated and initially doled out during the Bush administration.

But the failed project’s clear association with the stimulus is hard to overlook, especially when Republicans believe stimulus sells so big on the campaign trail.

Heller in particular proudly cites his “no” vote on the stimulus in 2009 as proof of how fervently he opposes “big government spending,” and his supporters have been going after his chief Senate competitor, Rep. Shelley Berkley, with attack ads decrying her for voting in favor of it.

“I opposed the stimulus, and (that’s) the reason why,” Heller reminded reporters Thursday, referencing the failed Amonix project.

But though Berkley’s prediction that the Amonix facility would help North Las Vegas recover from the recession didn’t pan out, she was at least in good, bipartisan Nevada company in thinking it was worth a federally backed shot before the enterprise quickly began to unravel this year.

“Shame on Sen. Dean Heller,” said Berkley campaign spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. “While Shelley Berkley and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval are working to make Nevada the clean energy jobs capital of America, Sen. Heller is cheering the fact that hundreds of Nevadans have just lost their jobs because he thinks it will help his political campaign.”

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