In the state of influence

Jan. 1, 2020
While aftermarket activists in other states deserve their due when it comes to pushing favorable legislation for the automotive aftermarket, it is California that is the clear bellwether for the industry’s legislative efforts.

While aftermarket activists in other states deserve their due when it comes to pushing favorable legislation for the automotive aftermarket, it is California that is the clear bellwether for the industry’s legislative efforts.

“What starts in California usually comes this way,” says Jan Firth, executive vice president of AWOI, the Automotive Wholesalers of Illinois. “A lot of the environmental bills that have come through Illinois started on the West Coast.”

“The federal Environmental Protection Agency, many times, falls in line with what the California Air Resources Board is doing,” reports Rodney Pierini, president and CEO of the California-Nevada Automotive Wholesalers Association (CAWA). “We have the majority of vehicles in the country, and we have the majority of aftermarket companies in the country.”

OBD II originated in Sacramento — the Golden State’s capital — and a national measure to ensure aftermarket access to onboard diagnostics is now moving toward possible passage in the halls of Congress.

“We had all of the aftermarket groups in California and the national groups working on that bill,” says Pierini, who also chairs the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association’s government affairs committee.

“The car business is trying to lock the hood on car repairs,” Pierini contends. “The car dealers have millions of dollars” to spend on pursuing their agenda.

CAWA earmarks $125,000 annually for professional lobbyists and campaign donations. “It’s not a lot of money, but we think we’re very effective and we have a lot of presence,” Pierini says.

The latest struggle in California’s general assembly is a proposal to require extended new-car warranties of 150,000 miles or 15 years.

“I can’t see that flying in someplace like Chicago with our bad weather,” observes AWOI’s Firth.

Nonetheless, this measure confirms yet again how aftermarket advocates in every state must remain alert to battle bills of all types that may prove detrimental to the industry.

Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and Michigan (especially with its Detroit influence) tend to be the top hotbeds of aftermarket-related lawmaking based on their high populations, although a poor piece of legislation can break out in any state at any time.

“We look to see what happens in other states,” says Ron Meyer, president of the Automotive Service Councils of Michigan, “because there are more similarities than differences.”

According to Eileen A. Sottile, vice president of the Florida Automotive Industry Association, and chair of the FAIA Legislative Committee, “every state should be important to the aftermarket, as it only takes one state to pass a bad bill that might trigger other states to follow suit.”

Grassroots efforts are effective

The late Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, famously noted that “all politics is local,” and that sentiment is reflected in the aftermarket regarding legislative initiatives both pro and con.

“Certainly the issues facing native Alaskans differ from the issues of big city dwellers across the country,” Sottile observes.

It is the membership of the various state aftermarket associations that do much of the battling in the trenches, with motivation and guidance provided by an organization’s leadership. Industry-wide groups supply additional ammunition as needed.

“We’re really just a grassroots portal for the national association,” says Firth at AWOI. The information disseminated through these channels “brings the hay down to where the goats can get it.”

“The importance of grassroots should not be underestimated, as it is the backbone of any well thought out lobbying effort,” according to Sottile, who also co-chairs the government affairs committee of the Automotive Body Parts Association (ABPA).

“Legislators will respond to their constituents, and we have plenty of them in our industry,” Sottile says.

“Our grassroots approach includes letters, phone calls and e-mail,” she explains. “We plan Capitol visits, host district meetings and invite our legislators to visit member locations so we can tell the story of the aftermarket to our representatives helping them to make better informed decisions.”

(Aftermarket enterprises anywhere can benefit by inviting state and local politicians to events such as car shows, auto races and charity fundraisers.)

The FAIA is embarking on voter registration drives across the Sunshine State to increase the aftermarket’s impact on the legislative process.

“We have distributed over 200 action kits to our membership in an effort to generate strong grassroots support for the motor vehicle owner’s Right to Repair legislation,” adds Sottile. “Our members are excited about this piece of legislation and we are working closely with the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) and the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE) in order to ensure its passage.”

“We tend to work in coordination with the state wholesalers and service groups,” says Aaron Lowe, AAIA’s vice president of regulatory and government affairs.

The vagaries of politics in each of the 50 states make localized participation imperative. “We can’t pretend to go into a state and understand the process,” says Lowe. “You need to have somebody on the ground who knows the lay of the land.”

On the lookout for restrictive bills

“The legislative aspect is probably the best aspect of state association membership,” according to Firth, describing the vast impact that a single negative regulation could have on a business’ fate if left unchallenged.

Pending at press time in Springfield, Neb., was a resolution supporting April’s National Car Care Month.

Each year AWOI rates Illinois lawmakers on their friendliness toward aftermarket issues. “Our members put a lot of stock in that” and vote accordingly, she explains. “Over the past few years they’ve gotten very politically active.”

“We are always on the lookout for bills that would restrict the ability of the aftermarket to compete on a level playing field,” Sottile reports.

“These bills take the form of discriminatory disclosures, consents or all-out bans against the aftermarket,” Sottile elaborates. “Also, we closely follow insurance issues that deal with health, property and workers compensation. The FAIA stands opposed to burdensome laws that create more reporting requirements and paperwork for our members.”

Twenty-five to 30 percent of the issues pursued by AWOI involve small business and retail matters not necessarily directly related to the automotive industry, Firth notes. Her organization closely cooperates with associations such as the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

These types of coalitions were successful in delaying — perhaps even killing — a plan floated by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to apply the state sales tax to services such as car repairs. “He’s kind of backed-off on that,” according to Firth.

Nail salons and restaurants were in the driver’s seat along with the automotive industry in California as “shakedown lawsuits” were filed under shady conditions against assorted small businesses, particularly those owned by people with limited English skills.

“We all banded together and put a stop to that,” reports Jennifer Zins, executive director of the Automotive Service Councils of California. Efforts to finally quash this complex, frightening and costly legal maneuvering “really started with the unity of the aftermarket — we got this on the radar screen in the state.”

Nine industry organizations ranging from gas stations to salvage yards are represented in the state’s Automotive Aftermarket Legislative Coalition. Obviously all these elements don’t agree on every position, and some are in tough competition for members. However, “we’re not afraid to band together and form coalitions and task forces when issues come down the pipeline,” according to Zins.

The California Automotive Task Force, yet another alliance formed to protect the industry’s interests, was a key to driving OBD II. The participants can be mobilized when need arises. “It’s just a quick e-mail to everyone, because we work so closely together,” says Zins. “We’re competitors for members, but we work side-by-side.”

Law making is not pretty

As a member of an association, most likely you’re encouraged to write letters to certain government officials or take part in personal meetings. Professional staffers who know their way around the statehouse accomplish a lot of the behind-the-scenes heavy lifting.

Prince Otto Von Bismarck died in 1898, but the Germanic statesman’s well-known comment remains germane: “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.”

There can be many reasons for a particular legislator’s support or opposition regarding a specific issue. The term “special interests” is tossed around a lot during election season; however, it can be presumed that anyone speaking up for their interests considers these interests to indeed be special.

Campaign contributions can be a factor; and in states with term limits, it’s not unusual to find lawmakers eager to arrange employment in the private sector when their time in public office is done.

Lobbying can be an effective means of achieving victory in the legislative arena. It is usually approached on a personal level, and party affiliation is often not an accurate predictor of how a vote will be cast — there can be geographic differences and numerous other factors in play.

(In New York, for example, vehicle emissions testing, which the industry supports because it results in more repairs being made, had been mandated downstate well before it was expanded into the upstate regions.)

“When it comes to the aftermarket perspective, we don’t see politicians as representing a particular party but in representing issues that are important to our industry,” Sottile explains. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to say that only one party champions the cause of an issue affecting our members. The story of the aftermarket appeals to corporate-friendly legislators and consumer-oriented legislators alike.”

Presentations that logically present the industry’s point of view can win over converts, as can grassroots contact from the membership.

“A lot of individuals are willing to step-up for issues that are important to them,” says Meyer in Michigan.

During debate over OBD II in California, a legislator from metropolitan Los Angles felt that if a motorist was unhappy over a dealer’s repairs, another code source was just five minutes away. Zins recalls explaining that a person in a rural area would face an hour-long journey in a similar situation.

A lawmaker can sometimes be “someone who has a bright idea, but hasn’t thought it all the way through,” according to Zins.

To avoid these situations, the industry makes a point to contact recently elected officeholders. “When you get new legislators, they don’t know what the aftermarket is,” says Zins. An offer to provide expertise is presented: “if you ever have an automotive-related issue in your district, call us first.”

Staying in touch with the issues is an ongoing mission, especially regarding small-business bills not directly aimed at the aftermarket. The impact or background of a particular measure may not be readily apparent.

In Nevada, business taxes are a looming issue as Native American casinos in California have already siphoned off $5 billion in revenue from the Silver State’s gaming-fed coffers, says Pierini at the CAWA. “Rather than go to Nevada, they (gambling fans) stay home and go to California casinos.”

Concerns frequently arise from regulatory decisions dictated from on high within a government agency. “If it’s legislative or regulatory issue, chances are we’re on top of it,” Pierini says. “Our guys are in the Capitol or in the halls of bureaucracy on a daily basis.”

Righting roadster wrongs

The hot rod realm has a whole carload of specialty issues that are continually being addressed. Restrictions on vehicle lighting systems, window tinting and aerosol paints are just a few of the ongoing battles in general assemblies throughout the country.

Nitrous oxide is no laughing matter as the engine enhancement technology comes under increased scrutiny, along with exhaust noise levels and emissions standards plus even the very definitions of certain vehicles.

Last year the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) had a series of significant legislative and regulatory accomplishments, according to Steve McDonald, SEMA’s senior director of government affairs. (A related story will run in our May Tuner Supplement.)

SEMA’s Lighting Task Force plans active engagement in the state legislatures in 2004, hoping to mirror the successes of 2003 when pro-industry legislation and regulations were negotiated in Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia.

A proactive campaign to educate state legislators, regulators and members of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) will continue, McDonald reports.

The Lighting Task Force currently is designing a model bill to comprehensively address lighting issues and the concerns most often contained in state legislation.  When finalized, the Task Force plans to pursue enactment in states that would most benefit from this effort and in states that are pursuing anti-industry legislation, McDonald says.

Also in place is the SEMA Action Network, known as SAN, which consists of individual enthusiasts, car clubs and industry businesses. Alerts are issued to the membership, asking them to write or call legislators in their respective states.

“No matter what you drive, all enthusiasts (and businesses) in a state should pitch in to help defeat wayward proposals,” McDonald maintains.

“While you may not be affected this time, the spotlight of a misguided bill could fall on your vehicle next,” he cautions. “That’s why it is so important that all SAN members get involved when the call goes out. We all make a difference when we speak as one voice.”

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