Editorial: Legislators need to learn the lessons of history

Sen. Steve Yarbrough is retiring as the executive director and general counsel of the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization.

Not a moment too soon.

Yarbrough has been the driving force behind taking money away from state government and diverting it to help students at private and parochial schools. That’s currently $74 million a year not going to public schools, or to fixing or building roads, or putting police officers on highways to catch speeders and those driving under the influence.

In that position, Yarbrough has personally benefited from the diversion of funds. He was paid a salary of $98,241 and received another $27,840 in benefits and insurance.

The law that allows this is permitting corporations and individuals to choose to give money to pay for tuitions to private and parochial schools instead of paying their taxes. Yarbrough demanded that the cap on that contribution increases 20 percent a year. Next year it is scheduled to be $89.2 million not going to important state items and it will be $107 million for 2019, and $128 million in 2020.

As the law stands now, it will continue to rise 20 percent every year until the limit exceeds the taxes the corporations or individuals owe. As he is retiring, he’s now willing to consider a cap.

In addition to benefiting personally from a salary, the organization that Yarbrough and his wife own, HY Processing LLC, was paid $659,300 to handle the accounting and paperwork for scholarships.

Providing incentives for corporations and individuals to provide scholarships for worthy, disadvantaged youth is a good idea.

But, it needs to be capped or we will see too much money going to that program at the expense of others, such as public schools or the state budget itself.

In this case, legislators failed to learn from their own history.

In 2000, the state offered to cover the costs of residents who wanted to switch to alternative fuel vehicles. Buy a car that burns natural gas, the state would pay for half of it. Convert an existing gas-burner to alternative fuels, the state pays 100 percent of the costs.

It was supposed to cost the state about $5 million to $10 million a year.

Instead, it was so popular Gov. Jane Hull had to call an emergency session of the legislature because the costs were approaching $500 million. The actual cost to the state was $200 million.

In that case, the main sponsor of the bill in the House was also personally benefiting from it. Then-Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost had financial interests with the industries that benefitted from the bill. After voters kicked him out of office in 2000, he went to work for a natural gas company, AFV Solutions Inc., in 2005.

We like the idea of encouraging corporations and individuals to donate to education. We love the idea of finding ways to encourage people to drive vehicles that emit less pollution.

We do not like it when politicians personally benefit from the laws that they pass and who don’t put reasonable limits on these good ideas so that they don’t bankrupt the state.

In the past few weeks we’ve been running stories on bills that legislators plan to introduce in the next session. It is our hope that they will think through the bills and ensure that they are not something that will take significant funds away from other programs that are desperate for cash.

And if they have a conflict of interest, they should step aside and let someone else push it through.