Cross-posted at LA Observed.
Were they deliberately fooled or just foolish? Three months ago, LA Observed has learned, California state officials toured the Solyndra, Inc. plant in Fremont to see what miracles were being wrought by the state’s investment in Solyndra, widely touted as a green energy model. The official turistas later gushingly reported: "Staff was quite amused by the musical robots and robotic forklifts that tooled around the [Solyndra] production facility moving solar panels while playing music. Staff was advised that the robots had a number of tunes available in their repertoire." Wow! We’re entrusting folks like these to safeguard our public investments?
And talk about tone-deaf – if the state officials had listened more closely they might have realized the music coming from the robots was actually the sound of Solyndra’s swan song. On Sept. 6, after tapping into millions of dollars of tax benefits, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy. On top of that, FBI agents raided the company’s headquarters, armed with a search warrant. That’s never a good sign.
To date, the focus of the Solyndra story has been on the controversy surrounding the Obama administration’s handling of the company’s successful request to obtain $535 million in loan guarantees. Republican lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday in the nation’s capital hope to score points by arguing Solyndra received favorable treatment from the Obama White House because Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser, a heavyweight Obama fund-raiser in 2008, was also a big investor in Solyndra.
But while all the political fireworks so far in the Solyndra debacle have been happening in Washington, D.C., it may be that we’ll see some in California. It turns out that in a rare show of unity, both Reps and Dems in Sacramento, holding hands like a bunch of campfire girls, in March voted unamiously to provide Solyndra and scores of other California companies with substantial sales tax breaks when they purchased green-energy manufacturing equipment. SB-71 was the legislative vehicle for doing this, and its author was state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernanndo Valley. After SB-71 cleared, Solyndra was among the first in the state to ask a wonderfully obscure state agency, chaired by state treasurer Bill Lockyer, to certify its eligibility to receive an estimated $35 million in sales tax exemptions. No surprise, Lockyer and the board he chaired (CAEATFA – don’t ask what it stands for!) quickly approved Solyndra’s request. As of Aug. 1, the company had avoided paying $25 million in sales taxes.
Now, all this federal and state assistance could have looked smart. Not only would it incentivize the creation of jobs, but green jobs at that. A double whammy. But Solyndra went belly up and last week sent lay-off notices to its 1,100 employees. And those state officials who toured the Solyndra plant last June – they might have looked smart too if they had done their homework and not been so enamored by the cute, singing robots that they missed the big story under their nose.
And here’s another question now emerging from the Solyndra story: how many of the good, high-paying green-jobs Solyndra created during its brief life were actually held by U.S. citizens? A private jobs website that monitors foreign worker hirings says Solyndra applied for 54 permits from the U.S. Dept. of Labor to hire H-1B workers (foreign professionals on visas) and green-card holders at its plant. To play it safe, LA Observed checked a DOL database and found that Solyndra during a one year period, ending Sept. 2010, filed applications to hire almost a dozen H-1B workers.