Alt-Fuel Bargain A Costly Purchase

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As the state legislature ducks into committee hearings to sort through proposals to stop alternative-fuel-refund money from hemorrhaging from the treasury, an elderly couple in Payson is doing a little ducking as well.

The couple, who asked to remain anonymous, said they had the best of intentions when they bought and paid for a Chevrolet Suburban in August through the state's alternative-fuel rebate program.

But when the news broke that the program could cost the state as much as $483 million, other motorists, the couple said, began harassing them, prompting the pair to illegally cover the sky blue and white license plate that marks their Suburban as an alternative-fuel vehicle.

"We've been given the finger sign and had things yelled at us," said the wife. "You can almost read their lips, and that's frightening at our age. We don't want to be run off the highway."

What really upsets the Payson residents, who are both 81 years old, is that people assume they bought their car to make a fast buck.

"We didn't do anything bad, but we're accused of being bad," the wife said.

In a letter to Dist. 4 Rep. Jake Flake, which was copied to Dist. 2 Sen. John Wettaw, Attorney General Janet Napolitano and Gov. Jane Hull, the couple explained their predicament. The missive begins by noting that they are native Arizonans who live modestly on Social Security and their state retirement.

The letter then delineates why they decided to sell their 10-year-old pickup truck and purchase an automobile under the program.

"We ... decided we could afford to buy a new vehicle under the state's conversion plan," they wrote.

Their new Suburban cost $38,257 plus $7,500 for the conversion or a total of $45,757. With a total refund of $19,280, the final cost of the vehicle $26,477 was affordable, they said.

"In addition, we have abided by the intent of the program and have run on propane fuel and have the receipts to prove it," they said.

It is Hull's proposal to fix the program and reduce the state's loss from $483 million to $200 million that has upset the couple the most. Her solution is to spread payments to qualified individuals over 10 years and disqualify hundreds of others altogether.

In the couple's letter to Flake, they point out their predicament.

"I wonder what our chances are of ever receiving any rebate, even if we both lived to be 91, as our income requires us to pay no state income tax," they wrote.

Hull's plan has outraged other participants as well, some of whom are threatening to file lawsuits against the state if it is enacted. Hundreds of them packed a hearing before the Senate Finance Committee last week to vent their frustrations, most arguing that a deal is a deal.

Many legislators expressed sympathy, especially for those who, like the Payson couple, bought their vehicles early in the program and have already taken delivery.

"We need to protect the budget, but if they have the vehicle and are making payments on it, the 10-year payout puts them in a real bind," Rep. Mike Gardner (R-Tempe) said.

Most of the alternatives now being considered would provide some relief to those who already have their vehicles. They include:

A plan sponsored by Rep. Steve May (R-Phoenix), which would give the promised lump sum rebates to buyers who have taken delivery of their cars. Unfortunately, May's plan takes $250 million set aside for school construction, so the state would have to issue bonds to build schools.

Like Hull's plan, a plan sponsored by Sen. Tom Freestone (R-Mesa) excludes latecomers and spreads out rebates for early buyers. The difference: the rebates would be extended over three to five years, rather than 10.

Two other proposals incorporate a concept put forth by State Treasurer Carol Springer to fund the entire program and freeze state spending to pay for it. Hull has said this alternative is unacceptable.

Reflecting the polarization of attitudes regarding the program, a group of protesters gathered at the Capitol Monday night to support Hull's plan. They argued that lawmakers are turning away from the governor's proposal because they have been swayed by all the hard-luck stories.

Regardless, the Payson couple said, the cash they paid for their vehicle took just about all the money they had in the bank, and they don't know if they'll ever get any of it back.

And now that they've been compelled to break the law by covering their license plate with the paper "plate" that the vehicle was delivered with, they are even more distressed.

"So far the police haven't stopped us," the wife said. "If they do, we'll just have to explain why we're doing it."

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