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Cuomo on whether Tesla will meet job targets: 'We will find out next year'

Gov. Andrew Cuomo doubled down on his support for Tesla’s state-subsidized South Buffalo solar panel factory Tuesday, telling the Buffalo News Editorial Board that he was not “disappointed” by reports that the firm's solar business is struggling.

The RiverBend factory, which manufactures components for solar installations and Tesla’s electric vehicles, was built with $750 million of state subsidies as part of Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion stimulus program. Under the terms of Tesla’s agreement with the state, the company was to create 1,460 jobs in Buffalo by April 2020 or face a $41.2 million penalty.

The plant employs almost 800 people in Buffalo, according to state officials, which means it will have to hire 660 more in the next seven months.

"You want to engage in anticipatory, contingent anxiety? No. ... ," Cuomo said. "We will find out [if Tesla met its job targets] next year. We know what the contract says. We know what the obligation says. We know the precaution that was built in. We have damages."

At present, Cuomo added, Tesla is ahead of its state-mandated hiring target, which called for 500 jobs by April 2019, including employees at Panasonic, its partner at the solar panel factory. He cited the new jobs as evidence of Buffalo's economic "momentum" and "energy."

But the Tesla project has been dogged by controversy almost from its start, prompting the state’s chief fiscal watchdog to open an audit of it last year. Among other issues, Tesla has repeatedly failed to meet its production targets for its highly anticipated solar roof, and its solar energy deployments plummeted more than 70% between April 2015 and 2018. (In a July 29 tweet, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said the company was expanding production “rapidly” and hoped “to manufacture ~1000 solar roofs/week by end of this year.”)

Workers at the Buffalo plant, where jobs were initially pitched as high-tech and well-paid, also make entry-level wages of about $16 an hour. Asked whether types of jobs available at Tesla met his expectations, Cuomo said he didn’t “know what the breakdown" of job types at the plant is.

Critics have also raised questions about why the state agreed to 10 amendments to its original agreement with SolarCity, now owned by Tesla, to reduce job targets and create an escape clause for the firm if local or national policy changes adversely affect it. A clause in the agreement potentially could allow Tesla to avoid $41.2 million in state penalties if the company fails to meet hiring targets because of changing conditions in the solar energy industry.

On Tuesday, Cuomo indicated that it was too early to speculate about the escape clause. And if Tesla did try to use it, Cuomo indicated that it could lead to a court fight.

"If they want to take it to that extreme, it would be a court of law that would make that determination," he said.

“Tesla is good news – all this is good news," the governor later added.

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