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The Legislature's push for vouchers reminds Tom of our state's alt-fuels fiasco

For the three in 10 current Arizonans who weren't with us in the year 2000, please allow me to offer a brief lesson in the all-too-recent history of our state Legislature.

During a late-night conference committee meeting in April of that year, the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, Jeff Groscost, managed to slip a 92-page (!) amendment into the Arizona Clean Air Act of 2000. The amendment called for the state to pay for half of the cost of the purchase of any vehicle that burned something other than gasoline. Or, if a driver wanted to convert his/her current vehicle to one that ran on alternative fuels, the state would pick up the entire cost of that conversion. But wait! If you were having trouble finding an alternative-fuel depot in town and wanted to install one on your property, the state would pick up the entire cost of that, as well.

The amendment was added at the very last minute in a 100-day legislative session that resulted in a gag response-inducing 1,400 bills, and the bill with Groscost's amendment was passed and signed into law by Gov. Jane Dee Hull. (In her feeble defense, Hull saw 400 bills come across her desk in the final five days of the legislative session.)

Groscost, who, as we would later find out, fit nicely in the back pocket of the natural gas lobby, estimated the cost of the program to the state to be around $5 million per year, while other, Cassandra-like, folks thought that it might go as high as $10 million per year.

The law took effect in July 2000 and during the first three-plus months of its existence, more than 22,000 Arizonans filed applications for payments that averaged (by odd coincidence) nearly $22,000 each, for a cost to the state of nearly a half a billion dollars in a little more than one-fourth of a year. The cost of the alt-fuels mess had reached 7 percent of the entire state budget when Hull called a special session of the Legislature in October to put a one-year moratorium on the program.

Groscost unraveled pretty quickly after the $500,000,000 hit the fan. He first denied, then admitted, that he had either leased or purchased two vehicles from companies that engaged in converting cars from gas to alternative fuels. He followed that up by first denying, then admitting, that he was taking advantage of the bill's tax incentives. Groscost represented perhaps the safest Republican district in the entire state, a chunk of the Mormon-est part of Mesa. Just a couple of weeks after the scandal came to light, he was defeated by Democrat Jay Blanchard, whose campaign strategy consisted of going out and standing on any street corner in Mesa and whispering, "I'm not Jeff Groscost."

The disgraced legislator would later take a job with an alt-fuels company based in Mesa. He died, far too young (even for a scoundrel), from a heart attack at age 45, leaving behind a wife and six children.

There are several lessons to be learned from this fiasco. First off, a bill put together in the dark of night and pushed through a fatigued Legislature at the last minute is rarely in the best interest of the majority of Arizonans.

Second, even smart people who should have heard alarm bells going off can be duped. Many such people (including several in government) thought that new cars and trucks would be ineligible for the program due to federal regulations. However, what they didn't know was that Groscost had held secret talks with the Environmental Protection Agency and had persuaded the feds to push back the scheduled cutoff date of June 2000 for the conversion of new vehicles to June 2002. The Governor's Office would claim that it had been unaware of Groscost's discussions with the EPA. His clandestine talks would turn the promised trickle into a tsunami.

Finally, I doubt that even Groscost knew the totality of what was coming. Clever people began buying big-ass SUVs and adding a 4-gallon propane tank to the flex-fuel vehicle. That way, they'd drive around using regular gas while the state would pick up half of the $40,000 price tag for the vehicle.

For the 1.3 million people who have become Arizonans in the past 14 years, let this serve as a warning. For the rest of us who were around at the time, we should certainly know better.

Please think about this the next time one of the voucher skanks opens his/her mouth to talk about the grotesquely misnamed "school choice" initiatives. (Just last week, the Arizona Senate passed a bill that probably would have cost Arizona taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars by paying some parents thousands of dollars to home-school a kid and giving other parents huge checks to help pay for private-school tuition for their kids. Somewhat miraculously, the House voted it down by a slim margin.)

The bill's backer, Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Peoria, said with a straight face that the bill would actually save Arizona taxpayers money. Lesko and all of the others who do the bidding of the public school-hating Goldwater Institute—having the alt-fuels fiasco as a fresh example—are either liars or fools.

My money's on both.

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