Legislative gridlock holds up millions of dollars in energy rebates

TALLAHASSEE — Payments for two popular green energy rebate programs are stalled because of a high-profile budget disagreement between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature.

Florida is in line for $31.5 million in federal stimulus money for the 2006 solar rebate program and a new program that encourages people to modernize their air-conditioning systems.

Crist had asked a special legislative commission to authorize the funding as it made minor adjustments to the state budget Wednesday. But top lawmakers ignored the request, arguing that only the full Legislature, not the budget commission, could authorize the rebate money.

"Florida has already received federal approval to use the funds," Crist wrote Tuesday in a letter to House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater. "I continue to encourage you to act quickly so that these funds can begin flowing into Florida's marketplace."

Crist said $13.9 million is available for the popular solar rebate program, which ran out of money because of tight budgets and owes Floridians $52.7 million in unpaid rebates.

Crist asked for money in this year's budget to reduce the backlog, but the lawmakers "affirmatively declined" the request, said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. He argues the program is a boondoggle that rewards rich people who can afford to buy solar systems.

"It takes as much energy to make a solar panel as it likely generates in its entire life," Alexander said. "I really doubt that this is a good investment for the people of Florida."

But solar energy companies say that the power source is viable and that the rebates help spur manufacturing jobs. Under Florida's program, homeowners and businesses can apply for rebates ranging from $500 for a solar water heater to $100,000 for a commercial roof system.

Robert Stewart, who owns Solar Star Inc. of Tulsa, Okla., said he lowered an Ocala nursing home's monthly energy bill from $5,000 to $3,000 by installing solar-powered fans that cool the attic. But, he said, people have stopped installing solar panels because the incentives dried up.

"All that money's doing is sitting and making interest," Stewart said of the new federal funds. "It's not creating jobs. It's not going to another program. It's just sitting there. Why let it sit?"

Also available is $17.5 million for a new air-conditioning rebate program.

The Governor's Office contends the funding for the program was placed in the budget in a separate account while the program's details were ironed out. The program was announced Aug. 20, promising homeowners a $1,500 rebate if they installed more efficient air-conditioning systems.

Now that the program is in place, a Crist spokesman said, the money simply needs to move to a different account so the state can start cutting checks.

But Alexander said that the money was put in the budget for a "significantly different" program and that lawmakers never approved paying for what Crist rolled out.

"There was a feeling that we just didn't have this vetted well enough," he said, adding that lawmakers might revisit the program during the November organizational session or the regular session next spring.

But dozens of homeowners already banked on the rebates. Arthur Annas, whose New Port Richey company verifies that the new AC systems are efficient enough to qualify for the rebate, said he's got 21 jobs lined up in St. Petersburg and nearly 100 more in Central Florida.

Annas said he's not sure what will happen to pending jobs. Homeowners might have to pony up the $1,500 in lieu of the rebate or the AC companies might lose their business. "There's a lot of people out there that were counting on the money."

Legislative gridlock holds up millions of dollars in energy rebates 09/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 15, 2010 8:45pm]

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