Fuel's Gold

Rarely does the state offer cash incentives worth $22,000 to the average guy on the street.

And rarely have state budget analysts so badly misread the public's reaction to a new state law.

But thanks to a bill crafted by Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost, a legislative spending boondoggle that could reach sports-stadium proportions is lining the pockets of thousands of Arizonans who are jumping on a program that requires the state to pay up to 70 percent of the cost of a new car or truck.

The only catch?

The vehicle must be equipped with an alternative-fuel system such as natural gas, propane or electricity. But the program also includes vehicles that run on alternative fuels and good old gasoline -- or so-called "bi-fuel" vehicles.

The state Department of Commerce has received more than 6,000 applications to obtain the lucrative tax credits and grants under the alternative-fuel vehicle program since July 1, the date the law took effect. The tax credits and rebates range from 30 percent to 50 percent of the purchase price of the vehicles, depending on the emissions and whether the vehicle can also run on gasoline. The state will also provide a tax credit equal to 100 percent of the cost to install the alternative-fuel system -- which costs between $5,000 and $8,000.

So far, the state has approved 534 applications, with rebates averaging $22,000 each for a total of $11.8 million.

State budget analysts last spring grossly underestimated the impact of the program. According to documents obtained under the state public records law from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, analysts predicted only 300 vehicles would be sold. The program was projected to cost about $3.4 million this fiscal year.

Instead, the cost of the program -- based on 5,359 applications already processed -- is about $122 million. And this doesn't include an unknown umber of people who have purchased alternative-fuel vehicles and are waiting for delivery before they apply to the state for rebates.

The drain on the state budget could be immense.

"This could hit the $200 million mark this year," says Ted Ferris, Governor Jane Hull's deputy chief of staff.

To stop the red tide, Governor Hull announced Tuesday that she will suspend the refundable tax provision beginning on October 11. After that date, tax credits must be spread out over five years.

The governor also plans to ask the Legislature to eliminate the program in January.

The state could be on the hook for more than $350 million if consumers rush to buy up to 37,000 vehicles (1 percent of the licensed vehicles in the state) and cash in on an unprecedented rebate bonanza before the Legislature closes loopholes in the law.

While the law supposedly was passed to help improve air quality, there is no requirement that the owners of bi-fuel vehicles must use alternative fuels. Popular pickup trucks are included in the program, which offers buyers tax credits and grants worth 40 percent of the sales price of a new truck if they add natural gas or propane fuel systems to the standard gasoline system.

Including bi-fuel vehicles in the program could diminish or possibly negate any air-quality benefits from increasing the number of alternative-fuel-only vehicles on the road.

"It doesn't make any sense because it's not going to help the pollution one stinking bit," says Berge Ford alternative-fuel vehicle salesman Bill Noble.

"People aren't going through the hassle to hunt down natural gas stations to buy it," he says. "They are just going to burn gasoline."

There are eight natural gas refueling stations in the Valley, but there are none in Arizona outside the Phoenix area; this makes longer trips in a natural-gas-powered vehicle problematic.

In a glaring omission, the law fails to provide rebates or tax credits for hybrid electric cars now on the market. The vehicles -- offered by Honda and Toyota -- never need to be recharged and increase gasoline mileage to more than 60 miles per gallon while slashing emissions.

The inclusion of bi-fuel vehicles in the program is a major issue with the governor, says Hull's press secretary, Francie Noyes.

"One of the things that has been a concern up here is the fact [that] you can get the [tax] credit for putting in this new system and go ahead and use regular gasoline," says Noyes. "That would seem to negate what we are trying to accomplish. If that is true, that is clearly a loophole that needs to be addressed."

Tim Hogan, director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, calls the program "mind-boggling" for its inclusion of gasoline-powered "bi-fuel" vehicles and the lack of accountability to determine what impact, if any, the huge financial incentives will have on improving air quality.