Obama returns to Iowa to seek wind tax credits


Ian Servin/The Daily Iowan
President Barack Obama speaks during an event at TPI Composites in Newton, IA on Thursday, May 24, 2012. The President delivered remarks about recovery from recession and American manufacturing.
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NEWTON — A small central Iowa city that pulled itself out of the recession through renewable energy jobs got its second visit Thursday from President Barack Obama, who used a local wind turbine blade manufacturer as a backdrop for a speech urging Congress to extend wind energy tax credits.

Obama's first visit as president to Newton, a city of about 15,000 residents east of Des Moines, came on Earth Day 2009, when he spoke at the wind industry manufacturer Trinity Towers. This time, he went to the TPI Composites factory, which builds wind turbine blades, each nearly half a football field long and weighing up to 20,000 pounds.

Former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who is campaigning for Obama, said repeat visits to Newton make sense because it's a town that has struggled with deep unemployment but has a seemingly bright future due to the alternative energy jobs.

"It's starting to come back as the rest of the country is," she said. "I think it's just a pretty good symbol of what we've been through and the hope for the future."

Obama acknowledged to the crowd that times were tough but said "we're getting through them together."

Robert Main, 64, a retired superintendent of the town's wastewater treatment plant said Obama's appearance at a wind energy factory helps the president politically but that doesn't mean tax subsidies are good policy.

"Wind energy, like other so-called green energy is not economically viable or competitive with other forms of energy that we've had for years and years without the tax subsidies to make them competitive," said Main, who also serves as secretary for the county's Republican Central Committee. "We're paying for it one way or another whether it's through our tax bill or in the form of the energy when you buy it."

Marlene Funk, who has been in Newton for the past nine years after retiring from the University of California in San Francisco, said Obama has worked very hard to fix the economy and she plans to volunteer for his re-election.

She said his visits to Newton are important for the community.

"This puts Newton in the news and it lets people know this town is not folding up and going away," she said.

Obama is trying to pressure a reluctant Congress to extend tax credits that expire at the end of the year, and he likely will find a sympathetic audience in Newton, where about 1,000 jobs are centered on wind energy generation.

"I think there's a real sense of pride that he has taken such an interest in our wind industry and we're also glad that he knows the extent to which the production tax credit is critical to jobs in Newton and Jasper County," said Dan Kelly, a local real estate agent and state legislator.

The Newton visit is considered a presidential policy event by the White House, separate from a campaign stop planned for later Thursday in Des Moines.

The Republican Party of Iowa, however, sees little difference.

"Taxpayers in Iowa are fed up with having to finance President Obama's campaign stops while at the same time they are suffering as a result of his failed economic policies," GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker said in a statement.

Democrats hold a registration edge in Jasper County, and the party is especially strong in the county seat of Newton, but Obama also could be drawn by the community's history.

Newton was the corporate headquarters of Maytag Corp., and the appliance maker once employed more than 4,000 workers there and at local washer and dryer factories. Whirlpool Corp. bought Maytag in 2006, then closed the company's operations in Newton.

The community has struggled, but the wind energy companies have helped a great deal, said Mayor Chaz Allen. He said the area's ongoing recovery illustrates a point often made by the president: that new technologies can reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels and create jobs at the same time.

"What he's trying to push here is renewable energies and we've been able to be successful at it and put people back to work," Allen said.

TPI Composites and Trinity Structural Towers, which makes the tower bases for wind turbines, have helped fill some of the job needs for Newton, but unemployment remains a problem, Allen said.

The county's unemployment rate has fallen from 8 percent in April 2011 to 7.1 percent last month, according to data released this week. That's still far above Iowa's overall rate of 5.1 percent.

Allen said the wind industry could create more jobs in Iowa, which is a national leader in wind production. About 20 percent of the all electricity generated in Iowa comes from wind, according to the Iowa Utilities Board says. That's up from less than 6 percent in 2007.

"Having that question mark out there about whether the production tax credit will happen or not is putting all this in jeopardy," Allen said. "We need to have that production tax credit and we need to have it for a longer term."

Obama also wants an expansion of a 30 percent tax credit for manufacturers of advanced energy products, including solar panels, fuel cells, and equipment to support wind energy and renewable fuel distribution.

About $2.3 billion in tax credits were created in the 2009 Recovery Act. The administration wants Congress to provide an additional $5 billion to expand the program.

The White House said the wind industry nationwide supports 20,000 direct jobs with more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs making machines and parts to supply the industry.

Even supporters of the wind industry in Newton note, however, that the jobs pay less than the appliance manufacturing jobs they replaced.

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