Al Franken to Chu: Doggone It, Like My State’s Company

Tad DeHaven

2/26/2012 12:01:00 AM - Tad DeHaven

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing last week on the Department of Energy’s budget request for fiscal 2013. Chris Edwards tipped me off to a particularly galling exchange between Energy secretary Steven Chu and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Sen. Franken uses his allotted time to badger Chu about a federal loan that Energy conditionally committed to a Minnesota company in 2010 that apparently has yet to be approved.

The exchange begins around the 61 minute mark here. Our trusty interns, Devon Sanchez and Stephen Wooten, transcribed the exchange, which I’ll share a portion of:

Sen. Franken:

One such project is from a company in Minnesota called SAGE Electrochromics. I know you are aware of that. Sage has developed energy efficient windows that are cutting edge, better than anything in the world and uses photo-voltaic cells to control the window how dark it gets during the summer to block out UV light and lower air conditioning costs and to let it all in, lower heating costs in the summer. And it’s really…I’ve been there and it’s just an amazing tech. In the Spring of 2010, the DoE promised the company it would receive a $72 million loan guarantee under the 1703 Program to build a new manufacturing facility that would create 160 manufacturing jobs and 200 construction jobs in southern Minnesota. It’s now been two years since SAGE has been notified that it will receive a loan guarantee and the deal has not yet been closed. While the Department of Energy prolongs closing the deal, time and money are running out for SAGE. There are high-tech manufacturing construction jobs at stake here. It’s been going forward with the project assuming they get this loan guarantee but they’re running out of time and they may have to sell themselves to a French company. My first question is that the SAGE loan guarantee was going to be submitted to the credit committee on August 23rd, but it was stopped. Why is the Department of Energy continuing to delay closing and executing the SAGE loan guarantee?

Secretary Chu tells Sen. Franken that he can’t discuss the details and advises the senator to speak with SAGE. A frustrated Sen. Franken takes another crack at getting Chu to explain the holdup, but doesn’t get anywhere and his speaking time runs out. Anyhow, the exchange is sad commentary on the state of affairs in Washington. Sen. Franken sitting there singing the virtues of handing out other people’s money to commercial interests in general would have been problem enough. That he instead used his time to grovel for a handout to a company in his state just goes to show that too many policymakers see the federal government as a favor dispenser.

If this company is producing such “amazing tech,” then perhaps Sen. Franken should lend SAGE some of his money? (Maybe he could use the royalties he receives from DVD sales of “Stuart Saves His Family” to help the company.) Wisecracks aside, a quick Google search shows that SAGE has already received private capital. If this company is so great then it should have no trouble finding additional investors to lend it the money it needs. Then again, Franken says that it’s running out of money so perhaps it isn’t so great. But that’s the way Washington works: taxpayers get the losses while private companies get the profits…and arrogant senators get to pat themselves on the back for “creating jobs.”

See here for more on downsizing the Department of Energy.