WASHINGTON - The tax reform momentum that seems to be building in Congress may imperil tax credit programs that have had major impacts in Maine, including wind power investments and economic development projects in rural or low-income areas.
The credit for electricity produced at wind farms, as well as the New Markets Tax Credit program, are both due to expire Dec. 31. In Maine, wind farms have supported hundreds of construction jobs on projects that are generating 400 megawatts of electricity -- with 1,000 more megawatts on the drawing boards. The New Markets program has funneled $221 million into development projects, from the Millinocket woods to the Portland waterfront.
But with the congressional clock ticking down to the so-called fiscal cliff, this could be the year that Congress opts not to renew some policies that skeptics view as tax carve-outs for special interests.
"It appeared to me that there is less interest in extending the whole package this year," said Will McBride, chief economist at The Tax Foundation.
Many of the "tax extenders" -- so called because they were supposed to be temporary programs and must be renewed -- are not officially part of the negotiations over avoiding the fiscal cliff, a combination of deep spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to kick in Jan. 1.
But Congress is setting aside the credits, deductions and other tax breaks until after those much bigger negotiations. That decision is creating uncertainty among some Maine businesses that take advantage of the tax breaks.
The 50-plus items on the list of tax extenders run the gamut from items that benefit a relatively small number of individuals and businesses -- such as tax credits for purchasing plug-in hybrids and breaks for movie or television products -- to tax breaks enjoyed by tens of millions of families.
Among the latter is the Alternative Minimum Tax, or AMT, a major policy that -- if left unchanged -- would result in substantial tax increases for millions of Americans. While the AMT is likely to be dealt with during the bigger fiscal cliff discussions, most items on the list are in limbo.
Wind energy companies in Maine and across the nation currently can claim a tax credit of 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity produced at qualified facilities. Supporters of the program say it is critical to helping expand the nation's renewable-energy sector -- a fast-growing part of the U.S. economy -- and to diversifying the country's energy sources. Critics, however, see the credits as an unfair subsidy for a higher-cost energy source.
The tax credit enjoys strong support among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers from major wind-energy states in the West and Midwest, as well as among Maine's delegation. But opponents hope the debate over the fiscal cliff and concerns about the federal debt could help them kill off the tax credits this year.
Benjamin Cole, spokesman for the free-market group American Energy Alliance, said wind power and the wind production tax credits fail measurements for affordability, reliability and fiscal responsibility. Cole, whose organization has ties to conservative groups, asked if an extension "is a responsible thing to be doing, given our financial condition?"
But Jeremy Payne, executive director of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, said allowing the tax credit to end would likely result in "a significant slowdown" in the development of wind projects. That would hurt a sector of the Maine economy that has seen more than $1 billion in investment in recent years, Payne said.
"It's all of those jobs," Payne said. "Reed & Reed, Cianbro, those companies have put hundreds and hundreds of people to work at a time when governments are stepping away from infrastructure investments, such as on roads and bridges."
Payne said representatives of the wind energy industry recognize that the tax credit will not go on indefinitely, so they are "at the table" talking about how and when to phase out the credits.
"But prior to any decision on a phase-out, there has to be an extension first," Payne said.
Cole, whose Washington, D.C.-based organization is the advocacy arm of the industry-tied Institute for Energy Research, was largely dismissive of those discussions.
"Until they come to the table with a concrete plan ... and all parties can agree this is right, I really don't think we are going to support some one-year, two-year or 20-year phase-out," Cole said. "They have had a 20-year phase-out already."
Another, less-controversial tax credit being watched in Maine is the New Markets Tax Credit program, which provides a 39 percent tax credit for investments in economic development projects in low-income areas.
Portland-based CEI Capital Management -- a for-profit subsidiary of Coastal Enterprises Inc. -- has been awarded $778 million for distribution to projects nationwide under the New Markets Tax Credit program. Roughly $221 million of that money has flowed to projects in Maine, leveraging $550 million in investments, according to CEI officials.
Prominent Maine projects that have used the tax credits include:
• The 241,000-acre Katahdin Forest deal that kept Millinocket-area land as working forests.
• The Gulf of Maine Research Institute's research facility on the Portland waterfront.
• The acquisition and renovation of the Lancaster Building in Monument Square for Youth Alternatives, a social services provider.
Charlie Spies, CEO of CEI Capital Management, said the tax credits have helped create or retain an estimated 1,700 jobs in Maine.
"It's a very effective tool for moving capital, and that capital is going into projects that are generating jobs," Spies said.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican who serves on the Senate Finance Committee that handles tax policy, said the program has "facilitated innovation and job creation from the establishment of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to reinvestments in our forest products industry in northern Maine."
Snowe is co-sponsor of a bill with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., that would extend the program for five years with an annual allocation of $5 billion.
"It is critical we pass this legislation to reauthorize the NMTC program authority, which expired at the end of 2011," Snowe said in a statement. "Additionally, I will continue to seek ways to improve the program and make it available to more communities and entities."
But McBride, with the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation, listed the New Markets Tax Credit as among the "tax extenders" that should be allowed to expire, describing it and many of the green-energy tax items as programs used primarily by special interests.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: