By Gintautas Dumcius
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Republican candidate for governor Mark Fisher on Monday dinged the Patrick administration over public investments in Evergreen Solar, a renewable-energy company that went bankrupt after tax breaks, before shortly pivoting to praising the administration's deregulation of the auto-insurance market.
A Republican alternately hitting and commending the outgoing administration is not unusual. But Fisher's comments, offered at a forum with his primary opponent Charlie Baker, came as he sat a few feet away from a former Patrick administration official who worked on both initiatives: Daniel O'Connell, who served as Gov. Deval Patrick's economic-development chief for two years, at the start of the administration.
O'Connell, who told the News Service he is still deciding which candidate for governor to vote for in the fall and finds Baker to be a "compelling" candidate, was part of a panel that questioned the candidates, including Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, and Bruce Mohl, editor of CommonWealth magazine. Former news anchor R. D. Sahl, now a senior adviser at Denterlein, moderated the forum at District Hall.
Saying he wouldn't "pander" to industries or certain regions of the Bay State, Fisher said the state sent $56 million in two years "down the tubes" to Evergreen Solar, which filed for bankruptcy in 2011. "This is what happens when government gets involved, and the free market should decide this thing," Fisher said.
O'Connell, now president of a council of chief executives called the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, defended the state's investment in Evergreen Solar, which was located at Devens, telling the News Service after the event that it was a "good bet from what we knew at the time."
"Evergreen was a situation where an entity created the jobs that they had promised to create, built the facility out at Devens and then were impacted by world economic conditions in the solar-technology area and the making of solar panels," he said. "The Chinese government decided to heavily subsidize solar-panel construction in order to dominate the world market, and they were selling it at below-cost pricing throughout the world. Evergreen could not compete at that pricing level despite their superior technology."
O'Connell noted that Fisher, a Shrewsbury Republican, spoke positively of the deregulation of the auto-insurance marketplace, which went into effect in 2008.
In answering a question about the state's health-insurance market, Fisher said health-insurance companies from outside the state should be allowed to compete, like in the auto-insurance market after reforms here.
"Our insurance premiums went down 13 percent," Fisher said. "The same thing can happen with health insurance. More competition is a great thing."
O'Connell said deregulation has led to "savings in the billions of dollars" in the last five to six years.
"That is an example where government getting out of the way paid off for consumers and I don't think that's a Republican or Democratic concept," O'Connell said. "I think both parties are looking for ways to have government play less of a role when the competitive private-sector environment can bring benefits to ratepayers, residents of the Commonwealth."
Insurance Commissioner Joseph Murphy told the News Service on Monday that his department has tracked premiums year to year, and auto-insurance premiums were 4 percent lower statewide in 2012 than in 2007. There have been 15 new auto-insurance companies operating in Massachusetts since 2007, and two companies, Esurance and Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange, joined the market in the last year, according to Murphy.
The competition has allowed for new products from the insurance companies, and consumers are able to benefit, Murphy said. Before deregulation, the state set how long accidents stayed with consumers, and now it varies by company, he added.
After the forum, O'Connell said he has not endorsed a Democratic candidate for governor. According to state campaign finance records, he donated $200 earlier this year to Juliette Kayyem, a fellow former Patrick administration official who is among the five Democrats running for governor.
"I find Charlie Baker to be a compelling candidate for governor," O'Connell said. "He has proven himself to be a good manager...And he's a candidate that I will consider very carefully as I make my final decision on my vote."
Fisher will be a candidate who "will be noticed as he gears up" and campaigns around the state, O'Connell said.
"And that will probably be a good thing for the Republican Party in terms of generating interest, which will assist them when it comes to the general election in the fall," he said. "No Republican in the Commonwealth can win without a significant number of independent and Democratic voters deciding to vote for them. The more exposure the candidates get from both parties, I think the better it is for voter turnout and participation."
O'Connell added: "I look forward to following the debate closely as I look to my ultimate decision in the fall."