Courtesy of Kyle Cheney, State House News Service
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, AUG. 3, 2011…..Backers of legislation aimed at boosting independent vehicle repair shops who say they’ve been deprived critical repair information and codes by large auto manufacturers are hoping to settle the hard-fought issue – a magnet for Beacon Hill lobbyists – once and for all.
Unable to advance their plan in the Legislature, the so-called Right to Repair Coalition, a group of independent auto dealers, aftermarket parts dealers, consumer groups and other auto interests, has filed paperwork with Attorney General Martha Coakley to take a proposal to the 2012 ballot.
The proposal would require auto manufacturers to sell diagnostic information to independent repair shops – which they say is critical for them to serve customers and compete with dealers – so long as that information doesn’t break trade secrets. No state has passed right-to-repair legislation, although proponents have pointed to other states’ efforts to impose restrictions of requirements on auto dealers.
Major auto companies – BMW, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and others – and their backers contend that the effort has been driven by aftermarket parts resellers seeking to obtain the manufacturers’ trade secrets and duplicate complex and expensive parts more cheaply.
Interests on both sides have hired prominent strategists to either kill or advance the proposal within the Legislature. Opponents have turned to former House Speaker Thomas Finneran and the public affairs firms Rasky Baerlein and O’Neill and Associates, while proponents have enlisted former Senate President Robert Travaglini, prominent Democratic strategists Stephen Crawford and Larry Carpman, and Art Kinsman, a spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition.
Kinsman told the News Service that proponents of the legislation were motivated to seek ballot access by a recent letter-writing campaign that drew more than 25,000 supporters to urge their lawmakers to back legislation on the issue.
“We just got so many positive signs,” Kinsman said in a phone interview. “This has always been a consumer-based issue, and there seems to be a real solid amount of public support for this.”
A pending bill on the issue with more than 60 cosponsors (H 102) is awaiting action within the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. The legislation’s lead sponsor, Rep. Garrett Bradley (D-Hingham), is backing the ballot effort as an option, should lawmakers fail to act.
Opponents of the legislation – including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, New England Service Station and Auto Repair Association, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Massachusetts High Tech Council, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the AFL-CIO and various other unions, and the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, among others – called the ballot push an effort to “bypass the legislative process.”
“The filing of the ballot question on so-called ‘Right to Repair’ makes it crystal clear that this issue is about parts, not repairs. The after-market parts industry has spent many millions of dollars over three legislative sessions trying to force it through the Massachusetts Legislature, including more than a million dollars in the first half of this year alone,” wrote the Massachusetts Auto Coalition, the umbrella group for opponents of the bill, in a statement. “Today they are committing to millions more to circumvent legislative authority.”
“Massachusetts consumers know they can already get their cars serviced and repaired wherever they like. They don’t need an unnecessary law to prove that,” the statement continued. “In fact, passage of this initiative could actually complicate the system in place today and limit repair choice.”
To place the proposal on the ballot, backers would need Attorney General Coakley to certify the language of their plan by early September, followed by a two-month effort to gather 68,911 signatures. If the signature drive succeeds, lawmakers would have until May 2012 to pass the plan, propose an alternative or allow the question to continue to the ballot.
The right to repair proposal joins what is shaping up to be a crowded field of high-profile policy questions on the 2012 ballot, should supporters succeed in their signature gathering efforts. Other proposals with backing from major advocacy groups include proposals to sanction and regulate medical marijuana and to repeal the state’s individual mandate to purchase health insurance. Ballot question proponents face a Wednesday afternoon deadline to file additional petitions.
Kinsman said he believed that the Right to Repair Coalition – whose backers include AAA of Southern New England, the Massachusetts Independent Auto Dealers Association, New England Tire and Service Association, Retailers Association of Massachusetts, Bridgestone Retail Operations, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, Midas International Corporation, Firestone, the Consumer Electronics Association, AutoZone, NAPA, Allied Auto Parts, LKQ, Meineke and various other organizations – is prepared to take the question to voters.
“You don’t file the papers, in my opinion, unless you’re willing to go all the way,” he said. “Today is really, literally the first step where you’re just filing papers, keeping that option on the table, but I’ll just emphasize, in no way are we abandoning our legislative effort.”
Given the prominent advocates on both sides of the proposal, the issue appears certain to result in an expensive and contentious campaign, should the ballot question move forward.
Furious lobbying over the issue has vexed lawmakers for years.
“Last session there was one issue I could never get my arms around and that was the right to repair,” Rep. Kevin Murphy (D-Lowell) said during a June hearing on the bill, noting that “both sides have spent an obscene amount of money advancing their interests.”
Kinsman said backers believe public support for the measure has grown despite the increasingly fractious debate.
“If this does go through the process and ends up on the ballot, I like our chances for the public to support us on this,” he said.