Given state government's history of managing incentive giveaways on the cheap, it's no surprise that Florida's cash-for-clunkers-style appliance rebates sound like a craps shoot for buyers.
Starting Friday, Florida is doling out $17.6 million in the form of 20 percent discounts on six types of Energy Star-rated appliances and $75 more if you can prove you properly disposed of each old energy hog.
After several rewrites and a year of planning, the governor's energy office late last week finally posted the byzantine rules on the program Web site rebates.com/florida. It's clear the winners will have to earn this entitlement that's being offered to every Florida resident.
Expecting a confused mob scene when appliance retailers open as early as 5:30 a.m. Friday, state officials appear to have crafted rules to prod people to get out of the race before the lines even form.
How? Let me count the ways.
• You have to buy before you can apply for a rebate or even a priority number reservation that is the closest thing to any assurance that you will qualify. So, yes, you could buy at full price and receive no rebate, although some retailers promise to offer discounts of their own.
• Since officials expect all rebates to be claimed on the first day of a 10-day program, you'll need to commit much of Friday morning just to play the game. So much for the working class.
• You can apply for a priority reservation number by the Internet only. Appliance stores like Apsco, HHGregg and Sears are offering to help with the online paperwork. But applications for priority reservations won't be accepted until after 11 a.m. Friday, nearly six hours after shoppers start buying.
• You have to decide if you're better off applying for a priority reservation yourself or letting a store do it for you in hopes of being in the first huge download dump at 11 a.m. A running tally of how much rebate money remains unclaimed will appear on the rebates.com/florida Web site, to be updated every 30 minutes. So the first hour or so will tell if anybody waiting to jump into the fray after lunch has a snowball's chance.
• Only sales made April 16-25 qualify. But a few stores already have been writing up orders in advance and promising not to actually execute the sale until Friday. Hopefully they will reward customer faith by not botching the order in a way that disqualifies them from a rebate.
• Like all mail-in rebate offers, the paperwork is an accountability bureaucrat's delight. For instance, the sale price, less sales tax, on the priority number reservation application must match the rebate application or it will be rejected — weeks later.
The founder of Ticketmaster once told me the key to his fortune was that government-owned concert halls refused to be the arbiter that chooses who in the mob will get hard-to-acquire tickets. Why else, he said, would governments have stuck for so long with those marathon ticket vigil campouts and the unsafe rush of concert crowds fighting for good seats. Governments even let Ticketmaster charge a premium to be the bad guy who manages the lines for them and eventually moved them out of sight to a remote phone room, then a faceless Web site.
In this case, the state outsourced the job to appliance retailers' clerks and a Delaware contractor (no Florida company bid) so it could proudly tout administration of a program financed by the last year's federal economic stimulus at only $100,000.
That's supposed to leave a bit more money for rebates in a program that's supposed to offer a teaching moment about energy-efficient appliances.
But a lot of other people's energy will be spent spinning wheels in the process, too.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.