The leading tea party-backed Republican candidate running for Wisconsin's open U.S. Senate seat who has also been a longtime critic of a federal stimulus program received more than $80,000 in stimulus grants for his own solar energy company.
And another renewable energy company run by former U.S. Rep. Mark Neumann signed a letter in November urging congressional leaders to keep the incentives flowing.
The letter contradicts Neumann's campaign stance calling for the immediate end to the 2009 stimulus program, enacted by Congress as a way to spur economic investment in the midst of a recession. In his 2010 campaign for governor, Neumann said he would devote any Wisconsin stimulus money to tax cuts and reducing the state's debt.
Neumann on Thursday argued that because the grant program he benefited from started as a Bush-era tax credit, it shouldn't be viewed as part of the 2009 economic stimulus law signed by President Barack. Neumann's company applied for and received the grant because having the money upfront was more beneficial than waiting for the tax credit, Neumann said.
"Clearly the taking of the payment allows me to reinvest the money sooner," he said.
While the Bush administration did offer a renewable energy tax credit, the 2009 stimulus made the important change of making the money available up front as a grant. That helps companies achieve quicker returns on investments and allows them to free up funds for future projects.
A list of recipients of the stimulus grants maintained by the Solar Energy Industries Association shows that Neumann Solar Leasing received $81,816 on July 28. The company buys and owns solar equipment and then either sells the electricity generated to the end user or leases the equipment.
The money came in the form of a grant under the so-called 1603 Treasury program, which provides cash worth 30 percent of costs for renewable projects. The program expired on Dec. 31 after Congress couldn't agree on an extension.
SunVest Solar Inc., a company Neumann is president of, signed on to a Nov. 30 letter sent to House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other congressional leaders urging Congress to continue the cash grant stimulus program.
A coalition of environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club also sent a letter in December urging the extension of the program, which it said was helping to curb global warming and reducing pollution.
SunVest, based in Waukesha, is a general contractor that sells and hires subcontractors to install solar energy systems for businesses, schools and churches.
The letter signed by SunVest and 763 other individual companies, associations and trade groups called the stimulus renewable energy grant program "a resounding success," saying it had leveraged $22.8 billion in private sector investments to support 22,000 projects in all 50 states.
The letter also reinforced Neumann's point that the change in timing for the incentive, from a tax credit to be taken later to an upfront grant as Obama structured it, improved the benefit.
"This change in timing, however, provides the liquidity needed for the further development of domestic energy projects," the letter said.
The importance of the change is also highlighted by the SEIA, a national trade group representing the solar energy industry. Making the money available as a grant simplified financing for renewable energy programs at a time when developers' tax burdens made it impossible for them to take advantage of tax incentives, the group says on its website.
The group said the stimulus grant program "revived the renewable energy industry in 2009 when the lack of tax equity financing in late 2008 brought many projects to a halt."
Neumann said money his companies received from the Bush-era tax cut and the Obama stimulus grants combined has allowed him to create about 50 jobs in Wisconsin. He did not know how much in tax incentives he had collected in total.
Federal funding for renewable energy programs has come under criticism because of questions surrounding Solyndra LLC, a California solar company that received a $528 million federal loan and later declared bankruptcy, prompting a federal investigation. Republicans in Congress have targeted Obama's clean energy program, calling Solyndra an example of `crony capitalism.'
Neumann has been a vocal critic of the federal stimulus as he tries to position himself as the most conservative candidate in the U.S. Senate race that also includes former Gov. Tommy Thompson and state Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald.
The Thompson and Fitzgerald campaigns had no immediate comment.
They are seeking the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl. U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin is the only Democrat running.
When he announced his candidacy, Neumann called the stimulus a failure and said he would lead the conservative charge to "change course immediately."
In Neumann's 2010 campaign for governor, he ran a television ad that was critical of the stimulus bill and lambasted the state's acceptance of $810 million for a high-speed passenger train line connecting Milwaukee to Madison. Gov. Scott Walker, who defeated Neumann in the GOP primary and went on to be elected as governor, rejected that money.
This isn't the first time Neumann's campaign rhetoric against the stimulus has contradicted his business dealings. Last year it was revealed that a private school he started in Phoenix as an alternative to public schools there received $174,007 in federal stimulus money.
Neumann said then that he wasn't aware of the award.