Dist. 4 Leaders Facing Election Entangled In Alt-Fuel Fiasco

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State representatives Debra Brimhall and Jake Flake, who represent Payson and other communities in District 4, are among a dozen legislators under fire for taking advantage of the state's alternative-fuel rebate program.

The program, which is now expected to cost taxpayers $485 million instead of the $3 million projected by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee when the issue passed in April, was designed to give 30- to 50-percent rebates to motorists who retrofit their vehicles to use alternative-fuels such as propane.

The law was drafted to help clean up the ever-increasing air pollution in the state's metropolitan areas such as Phoenix and Tucson, but Flake and Brimhall, who live in and represent rural areas with far less troubling air pollution problems, were among the first people to take advantage of the program.

They weren't, however, the only rural residents who thought the rebate program was a good deal.

According to statistics compiled by the Arizona Republic, Payson ranked second in the state for per-capita applications, with 6.6 applications per 1,000 residents.

In the entire state of Arizona, only the farming community of Safford had a higher per-capita participation than Payson, with a total of 8.7 applications per 1,000 residents. By comparison, the per capita average in Phoenix was 1.7, and the statewide average was 1.8.

Wheeling and dealing

Flake (R-Snowflake) and Brimhall (R-Pinedale), both of whom are running for re-election in the Nov. 7 general election, are among a dozen or so legislators who purchased at least one vehicle under the program which is now expected to cost the state enough money to build a new football stadium in the Valley without costing the taxpayers a single penny.

The legislation they helped pass pays motorists up to half the cost of alternative-fuel vehicles but does not require that purchasers use the alternative fuel instead of conventional gasoline. The state estimates that as many as 20,000 vehicles will ultimately be eligible for rebates, despite the fact that Gov. Jane Hull and the Legislature recently put a stop to the runaway program.

Flake, who said he saved a little less than $10,000 on his new Ford Crown Victoria, was apologetic.

"I'm embarrassed," Flake said. "I wish we hadn't passed the legislation in the first place, but what I did was done in good faith.

"We had done about all we knew to clean up the air in Maricopa County, the only place where the state really has a serious problem," he said. "We had to do something to save the matching highway dollars we get from the federal government. This legislation was an attempt to help this problem out."

Then House Speaker Jeff Groscost helped convince the Environmental Protection Agency to drop a moratorium on alternative-fuel conversions of expensive gas guzzlers like sport utility vehicles. That and loopholes in the legislation opened the floodgates, he said.

"It probably would have been OK, except the EPA approved retrofitting for a wider variety of cars," Flake said. "Until that happened, we thought it would only be 600 to 700 cars."

Flake, who noted that he has served on the State Environment Committee for four years, said that the Legislature actually made two mistakes. "One was to pass the bill in the first place; the other was not to put a stop to the whole thing earlier. For that, he said, I fault myself. I should have been watching closer."

And what about that new Crown Victoria? Flake said he bought that in good faith, too.

"It's a propane retrofit, and I'm running it totally on propane. It has enough tank capacity that I can get to Snowflake and back," he said. "I had it retrofitted at the dealer, not the factory, so I only qualified for a 30-percent rebate. I saved less than $10,000, and that's about what the retrofit cost."

Flake said he also has ordered a new pickup truck under the program but intends to try to cancel it.

To date, he said his opponents have not tried to make hay of the situation.

"I'm embarrassed enough for everybody," he said.

Potshots and potholes

Brimhall was less forthcoming. In both a conversation with the Roundup and a letter to a constituent, she blamed the media for exaggerating the problem.

"It is so scary to see the lengths the media will go to sell ink," she wrote. "They must have a crisis, any crisis, even a created one."

In her conversation with the Roundup, Brimhall accused the Republic of trying to influence next week's vote and persuading Gov. Hull "to take a political move against Speaker Jeff Groscost and announce the Executive order to stop the program."

Ted Ferris, the governor's deputy chief of staff, flatly denied those allegations.

"It's a pretty outrageous letter in many respects," Ferris said. "The governor didn't concoct this program, Jeff Groscost did. And it was Jeff Groscost who went to the EPA and got them to make the decision that really sent this thing out of control. I assure you we were not in secret meetings with the Republic on this.

"This is just a smokescreen to cover the fact that a legislator who doesn't live in the area where we have an air quality problem now has to answer for the vehicle she bought."

As to her participation in the program, Brimhall said she bought her new Ford Expedition to help the state test the program.

"I was one of the first ones to be put through it," she said. "I was willing to be a guinea pig and spent months in and out of the shop as they figured it out ...

"I could not afford to do this, but I did it anyway. I have been one of the first to be put through the paper nightmare to see what we have created for the average citizen."

Brimhall thinks the real blame belongs to those participants whose motives were less than pure.

When the governor called a halt to the program, Brimhall said, everybody rushed to get in under the deadline. "That is when the spike in applications occurred."

Brimhall also claims that "the applications could take five years to fill ... There is just no way to fill all those orders in the time and cost the media is reporting.

"It is like Medicare and all other good programs that are meant to solve a problem and fix an issue," she said. "There are always those who have the mindset to cheat, lie, steal and destroy the opportunity for good to occur."

Driving a good deal

One of the Rim country residents who took advantage of the program was Dr. Robert Sanders, a Payson chiropractor.

Sanders, who said he's had a long-standing commitment to the environment, doesn't apologize for applying for rebates on two new half-ton pick-up trucks. It was a good deal, he said.

"There are people who do more than me, but I believe in conserving," he said. "I recycle newspapers and cans. I even pull cardboard out of the dumpster.

"These two vehicles will replace vehicles that are basically worn out. They each have over 200,000 miles on them. They are not fuel efficient and they leak just about everything."

While many participants are buying vehicles so they can turn around and sell them for a profit, that is not the case with Sanders.

"My new trucks are not for resale. I'll drive them into the ground," he said.

Sanders also intends to run his new vehicles primarily on propane.

"I don't have token tanks," he said. "I will use these vehicles in a way that benefits the environment."

Finally, Sanders points out that the program was not drafted for Maricopa County alone, where, he said, most of our taxes go anyway.

"My first impulse," he said, was, 'Hooray. They finally put some teeth into cleaning up the air.' I'm disappointed to see how poorly crafted the legislation was. I'm sorry about that."

But, he said, he doesn't blame Brimhall and Flake for the problem.

"If anything, it shows the difficulty people in the Legislature have in crafting good legislation. It's not easy."

Nevertheless, Flake thinks the problem might yet be contained.

"When the dust settles," he said, "I think we'll find a lot of people have canceled their orders. This may not be nearly as bad as we fear."

Ferris is also optimistic about the fact that most orders have not yet been delivered.

"We're working on some other measures to contain this," he said. "We're doing everything we can to get the horses back in the barn."

Sanders said he would be willing to listen if he got a call from Flake or the governor's office.

"I could still cancel one of my orders," he said, "and if somebody from one of those offices called me and asked me to do that for the good of the state, I'd certainly consider it."

Under investigation

In the meantime, the state attorney general has

opened a criminal investigation into the program, and legislators have called for an ethics investigation into Groscost, who drafted the legislation.

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