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By Dave Umhoefer August 23, 2012

Crossroads GPS says Baldwin voted to spend $800,000 to replace light bulbs

On Day 1 of Wisconsin’s general election contest for an open U.S. Senate seat, Democrat Tammy Baldwin got a scolding from a conservative advocacy group.

"Big spending in Washington is terrible for Wisconsin’s economy, and Tammy Baldwin hasn’t helped," a Crossroads GPS TV ad began. "Tammy Baldwin voted for the failed $1 trillion stimulus, including projects like $800,000 to replace light bulbs."

The ad includes an image of a standard-issue light bulb, the kind you might have in your living room, and goes on to rip Baldwin, a Democrat from Madison, for trillions being added to the national debt during her 13-plus years in Congress.

We’ve heard a lot of claims over the years about stimulus spending.

But a wasteful $800,000 for light bulbs?

The stimulus bill

Baldwin did vote for the stimulus package, known formally as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. But it did not carry a $1 trillion price tag at the time.

The 2009 estimate was $787 billion and later revised to $814 billion.

Interest costs on additional debt will bring it over $1 trillion, but Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said it’s somewhat misleading to pin that figure on Baldwin.

So the ad is a bit shaky on the big picture.

Light bulbs

Now let’s try to shed some light on the claim of a wasteful $800,000 in stimulus funds to "replace light bulbs."

Crossroads GPS pointed us to a November 9, 2011, online story by
WITI-TV (Channel 6) in Milwaukee that focused on stimulus-funded projects that, in the words of the story, weren’t "exactly stimulating much of anything."

The story said the U.S. Department of Energy had "showered" the city of Racine with nearly $800,000 in stimulus money, which Racine used to replace street lights with energy efficient LED lights. But, the story said, only one unemployed electrician was needed to install the lights.

So, while the ad leaves the impression these are ordinary light bulbs, that’s far from the case.

As in many other U.S. cities, the Racine money came through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program. At least 30 cities asked for more than $104 million in federal stimulus funds to help them change to LED (light-emitting diodes), replacing high-pressure sodium lights, USA Today reported in March 2009.

Racine’s total grant was $795,000, but not all of it was for the street lights. A good chunk of it -- about $194,000 -- was for energy audits of homes and loans to residents who wanted to save money through weatherization and other energy-saving changes. Another $79,500 was for administration.

A total of $521,500 was for the new LED lights, with about half for street lights and half for city government buildings, according to Kathleen Fischer, the city’s assistant finance director.

So the Crossroads ad is off on the $800,000 claim as well.

The installation did only result in enough work for one full-time electrician, according to Racine Mayor John Dickert.

But there are a couple other aspects to this.

First, Racine is saving 59 percent on energy costs thanks to the lights. That is projected to amount to about $40,000 a year.

"It was money well spent," said Mark Yehlen, commissioner of Public Works. "We have realized significant savings."

What’s more, one of the primary suppliers of LED lights for the Racine project was a Racine-area company, Ruud Lighting, that builds the lights.

Ruud has expanded and added jobs while winning contracts to supply LED lights all over the United States to municipalities -- many of them using the federal stimulus dollars flowing through the Department of Energy’s block grant program.

"BetaLED, a division of Ruud Lighting, Inc., is seeing a healthy boost in business as cities tap into their Recovery Act funds...", a Department of Energy news release said in April 2010.

When Ruud was purchased by Cree Inc. in 2011 and announced job-expansion plans, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker praised the company and said Ruud would be eligible for up to $4 million in state tax credits.

For years, many of the LED conversions involved lights mostly made in Asia, though the lights often were assembled in the United States, PolitiFact National and found in previous fact checks. That was because the Energy Department initially felt insufficient components were available domestically.

Ruud has won some contracts because it uses more American-made parts than other companies, according to news coverage in Pittsburgh, where it also won work, though not through stimulus funding.

"These ads are really disappointing," said Dickert, the Racine mayor. "They are only telling half the story, if that."

Our rating

Crossroads GPS charges that Baldwin voted for wasteful spending through a "$1 trillion stimulus" plan, specifically citing "$800,000 to replace light bulbs."

On both counts, the numbers are too high. While only one job was created to complete the project, city officials say it will save city taxpayers money every year and a growing local company got a big chunk of the contract to make the lights. They are in the midst of a hiring effort and have won stimulus-funded work all over the country.

There’s an element of truth in that federal stimulus money went to buy light bulbs, but overall we rate the claim Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Crossroads GPS, campaign TV ad, August 15, 2012

Fox6 WITI Milwaukee, "See how Wisconsin is spending its share of federal stimulus funds," Nov. 9, 2011

U.S. Department of Energy, "Wisconsin LED Plant Benefits from Recovery Act," April 1, 2010

Email interview with Nate Hodson, spokesman for Crossroads GPS, August 16, 2012

Email interview, John Kraus, Tammy Baldwin campaign spokesperson, August 16, 2012

Email interview, Steve Ellis, vice president, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Aug. 16, 2012

Phone interview with Kathleen Fischer, assistant finance director-treasurer, city of Racine, August 17, 2012

Phone interview with John Dickert, mayor of Racine, August 16, 2012

Phone interview with Mark Yehlen, Racine commissioner of Public Works, Aug. 17, 2012

Phone interview, Bill Gibbons, deputy press secretary, Department of Energy, Aug. 20, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"Future looks bright for LED lighting," June 9, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"LED Merger," Aug. 17, 2011

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Crossroads GPS says Baldwin voted to spend $800,000 to replace light bulbs

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