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Clinton at 2011 CGI
Former President Bill Clinton at 2011 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting

In 2009, I participated in a blogger conference with former President Bill Clinton. One of the topics he discussed was the huge and mostly untapped potential for job creation and economic growth in the area of retrofitting commercial buildings and residences for energy efficiency.

I did not give the issue much thought until I began doing legal work for a small company, owned by Latino men and women, dedicated to just the type of work Clinton was talking about—retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. (Consider this my disclosure of my personal financial interest regarding this subject.)

At this year's Clinton Global Initiative, I was invited to participate in a blogger conference with the former president. In preparation for the meeting, I reviewed the actions the Clinton Global Initiative had been taking regarding the issue, which were substantial, and compared them to some of the difficulties my client was facing in taking the company to the next level. My client has experienced tremendous growth in demand, in no small part due to to the initiatives of the Obama Administration (tax credits and the like.) But my client was facing a difficult hurdle—to take the next step in this burgeoning area of the economy, my client was in need of new financing in order to purchase equipment and hire new employees to expand their capacity to perform more projects. Traditional commercial lending from banks and other financial institutions is not forthcoming. What to do? I decided to ask the former president about the issue.

Before I describe my conversation with the president, it is worth reflecting on what the Clinton Global Initiative has been doing in this area. It's a lot.

One of the most notable was the announcement at the opening of the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting of the commitment by the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers:

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten at the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting today to announce progress in the labor movement's commitment to investing in infrastructure, clean energy retrofitting and job training.

A broad coalition chaired by the American Federation of Teachers and including SEIU, AFSCME, NEA, the Firefighters, the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department and investment funds affiliated with the labor movement have worked with other partners to advance a set of goals announced in June at CGI America.  At that meeting, the AFL-CIO committed to work with member unions, union pension funds, their investment professionals and government at every level to invest $10 billion in job creating infrastructure as well as at least $20 million in specific energy retrofits over the next year, a retrofit of AFL-CIO headquarters and training tens of thousands of workers in the skills necessary to work on 21st century infrastructure.

Yet in the announcement press release, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka touched upon one of the underlying obstacles to truly pushing this initiative:

"At the AFL-CIO, we know America wants to work. And we can't wait for Washington. We look forward to working together to see that workers' capital is invested profitably in rebuilding our country and putting America back to work," Trumka said.

"Public employees, unions, investment groups and others want to be part of a renewed America. What we're talking about today is America's retirees, and future retirees, helping their country recover economically and invest in projects that might never have gotten off the ground because of budget crises," Weingarten said. [Emphasis supplied.]

We can't wait for Washington. And we can't wait for Wall Street and the financial community. In June 2011, Clinton wrote:

The whole purpose of CGI America is to highlight good ideas because not everyone is aware of what’s out there. I’m going to try to get enough commitments that are representative enough of the circumstances facing diverse industries and different cities and states to persuade people across America to try their own version of them in a discussion of our economic stagnation. There’s been a remarkable lack of attention to “microeconomics,” the untapped growth potential of American corporations, entrepreneurs, and workers.

Let’s be realistic here. This is a massive economy. No matter how many impressive commitments we get, we won’t move the numbers. They’ll move the numbers only if enough people say, “Wow, I wish I’d thought of that.”

But Wall Street and the financial community is not in "Wow, I wish I'd thought of that" mode. The Obama Administration has been very good on identifying the potential for economic growth energy efficiency projects present. But financing remains a problem, even with the impressive vision  of people like Richard Trumka and Randi Weingarten. So what can be done? I'll discuss my conversation with the former president about this issue on the flip.

At the blogger meeting, attended by me and approximately 10 other bloggers and reporters, I was quick off the mark after the former president arrived and greeted everyone. In my experiences with President Clinton, if you don't get your questions in early, you'll find yourself against the clock. So I jumped in first and, after acknowledging the great efforts of the Clinton Global Initiative, I told my client's story and pressed the former president about the issues of financing for expansion in the energy efficiency business.

Clinton agreed that financing was a problem and accepted that to truly expand the field, more needed to be done on the financing side. He discussed the issue first from the perspective of financial institutions, stating that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, financial institutions were being extremely tight in their lending practices. He pointed to the fact that with the Fed in essence giving financial institutions virtually free money, financial institutions were digging out of their problems by conservatively using the spreads between nearly risk free investments and lending to rebolster their balances sheets, still weighed down by a tremendous amount of poorly performing mortgage paper.

Clinton argued for increasing the funding for SBA-type loans for energy efficiency projects. He noted that the political lift was difficult, especially in light of the Solyndra mess, but he argued that retrofitting energy efficiency projects were simply a different breed of project. He argued that the case needed to be made that in terms of job creation and investment safety, retrofitting energy efficiency projects were by far the most bang for the buck while also having the virtue of being relatively safe investments, given the security of tax credits and energy savings that underly the economic rationale of the projects. In particular, President Clinton stressed the tremendous job creation potential of retrofittting for energy efficiency.

With regard to financing issues, he acknowledged that small and start-up businesses face very difficult hurdles and pointed to a series of proposals he is advocating for to help in this area. Among these are SBA-style loan guarantees, which Clinton argues can be a powerful tool to create jobs, as they allow banks to lend money to a business after the federal government guarantees a high percentage of the loan amount. The federal government can take security interests in the guaranteed returns on the se loan that come oin the form of energy savings and tax credits, virtually guaranteeing that such a program would have no Solyndra type outcomes.

Clinton applauded some of the Obama Administration's initiatives in this area. For example, the Department of Education currently offers a loan-guarantee program to support clean energy projects. In his fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, President Obama requested $200 million for the loan guarantee program, but the proposal is stalled as is all of the budget at this time.

I pressed Clinton on alternatives for small businesses such as my client, given the assured gridlock in Washington. I asked if the Clinton Global Initiative had any programs for providing guidance to small businesses to tap the available options, including options being initiated through the Clinton Global Initiative. He promised to look into the matter.

I'll be following up.

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