MWDN: Lessons from Evergreen Solar

Evergreen Solar’s decision last week to shutter its manufacturing facility at Devens, laying off over 800 employees, is deeply disappointing – not only for our region but for the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Our state government made a substantial investment – nearly $60 million – in Evergreen Solar, with the hope of creating hundreds of permanent jobs. The closure at Devens means the loss of hundreds of jobs and the failure of this investment.

Our first step is to get the soon to be laid-off employees help with unemployment assistance and, where necessary, job re-training, while making sure that the state gets as many taxpayer dollars as possible back from Evergreen Solar.

We also need to learn the right lessons from the Evergreen Solar failure. We can’t go back and change the past – but we can, as a state, commit ourselves to figuring out what went wrong, learn from our mistakes, and do better in the future. This is the time to change the way we approach economic development as a state.

The question we should be asking is this: should Massachusetts state government offer massive subsidies to large corporations as part of its economic development strategy to create jobs for residents?

Since the 1990s, the answer from Governors of both political parties, and the Massachusetts Legislature, has been a resounding yes. Through budget cuts in education, human services, and environmental protection, deep recessions in 2002 and 2008, and a significant decrease in state revenues, one area of the budget has consistently remained untouched: expenditures for tax breaks for corporations.

This is a disturbing trend, which speak to two political realities in Massachusetts, and across the country. When faced with the complex and difficult task of creating jobs, all too often elected officials choose the path of least resistance by pushing for more tax breaks as the “quick” way to create jobs in Massachusetts – even if the long-term success record of these tax breaks is poor. At the same time, special interests, represented by corporate lobbyists, are incredibly successful at directing more and more corporate welfare their way, while pushing the social costs of rising unemployment costs, health care expenses, and the costs of public education necessary for a productive workforce onto individual taxpayers, and state and local governments.

We need to challenge and upend this status quo, and the ever-increasing power of corporate lobbyists.

To do so will take greater scrutiny of the conventional wisdom on how to create jobs by elected officials and the general public, and a greater outcry when these practices do more harm than good to our Commonwealth.

When lawmakers and the public are silent when companies take our tax subsidies and then move operations to China, or lay off workers while making record profits, or lobby to gut safety and environmental protections to save money, it makes it very easy for lobbyists to quietly guide these efforts through the halls of Beacon Hill.

While I have dedicated most of my political career to opposing the efforts of corporate lobbyists, I also admit that I contributed to part of the current dynamic by initially supporting the state investment in Evergreen Solar. I saw it as a good way to jumpstart the clean tech industry in Massachusetts, and a way to create hundreds of good jobs in our district. As we know now, it wasn’t.

Over the last few years, as I’ve taken a harder look at some of these corporate subsidies, I’ve grown to believe that this isn’t the most effective economic development strategy for our state.

Right now, we need a much broader and deeper discussion about how to actually create sustainable jobs in Massachusetts. We need a greater focus on helping small businesses that have been here for generations expand, and on investing in public infrastructure – transportation, education, health care – to ensure that job creation will be steadier and more stable. Most of all, we need to have an adult discussion about moving to a fairer tax system that not only reduces tax burdens on working and middle class families, but ensures greater consumer demand and stimulation of the economy.

If we are to bring our communities back from the brink of financial disaster, and ensure economic security and development for all, these are the sorts of public discussions we need to start having.

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