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Solar-power lobby’s pressure has Ensign feeling alienated

WASHINGTON — Breaking with an industry that is growing significant in Nevada, Sen. John Ensign cried foul this week against a solar power lobbying campaign.

Ensign said an effort to pressure him on solar tax breaks has had the opposite effect of “personally alienating” him and other senators.

In an outburst notable for its bluntness, the Republican sent a blistering letter Thursday to the national membership of the Solar Energy Industry Association, and later gave it to reporters.

He said lobbyists threw away their goodwill when they carried out a strategy that included a statement suggesting Ensign was favoring “billionaire hedge fund managers” over job creation in Nevada.

“It is rare to have such overwhelming bipartisan support in today’s political climate but the solar industry had it and your association’s leadership squandered it,” Ensign wrote.

The episode exposed a fissure that had been widening since last year as Congress tries but fails to extend investment and production tax credits for solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources that expire this year.

Nevada solar executives privately expressed unhappiness that Ensign was voting against bills containing the tax credits along with other expiring tax breaks.

Ensign said he opposed the bills because they would have paid for the new tax breaks by raising taxes on the oil and gas industry and other business interests. He argued the trade-off would blunt the overall benefit to the economy.

Earlier this spring, Ensign sponsored an alternative with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., that called for new renewable energy tax breaks without cost offsets. It passed the Senate 88-8, but is stuck in the House.

On Tuesday, the latest effort to move a tax bill was blocked by Republicans 50-44. A new vote is expected next week.

In advance of Tuesday’s vote, the solar industry said in a statement that Ensign “will have to choose between job-creating solar power for Nevada or continuing a veto threat that protects the off-shore tax havens of billionaire hedge-fund managers.”

That set off Ensign, along with disclosure of a solar lobbying plan targeting Republicans, including Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Orrin Hatch and Robert Bennett of Utah and Wayne Allard of Colorado.

“Following a partisan playbook is not a proven or wise track,” Ensign said in his letter to the solar industry. “Instead of capitalizing on this opportunity to achieve your goals, SEIA wasted it.”

Rhone Resch, Solar Energy Industry Association president, said Friday the intent was not to alienate Ensign but to prod Congress to find a way to pass the tax provisions. If they expire, investment in solar will come to a halt, he said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@ stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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