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Auto Repair Bill Draws Crowd of Supporters, Opponents to Hill

Jun 28, 2011Council in the News, State House News Service

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 28, 2011….The feverish battle over auto repair legislation spilled back into the State House Tuesday as advocates and opponents brought their pitches from the airwaves straight to lawmakers, making cases for and against a bill that would require auto manufacturers to supply all diagnostic and repair information to repair shops.

The legislation, which has drawn an array of special interest groups and lobbyists to Beacon Hill, has been cast as a small business and consumer protection effort by proponents and as unnecessary and dangerous to the business climate by its opponents, confounding some lawmakers who said they have struggled to decide who to believe.

Testimony offered before the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, co-chaired by Rep. Theodore Speliotis and Sen. Thomas Kennedy, did little to change that dynamic with opponents accusing each other of misrepresenting the situation facing independent auto repair shops.

If approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Deval Patrick, Massachusetts would become the first state to enact so-called right-to-repair legislation which has fallen short in states where it has emerged and in Congress.

Proponents of the bill say it would ensure that independent auto repair companies are able to access critical repair information, enabling them to better serve prospective customers and to compete with dealerships for repair business. Manufacturers counter that the bill deprives them of their intellectual property rights and that the independent manufacturers already have access to the necessary repair information.

Rep. Garrett Bradley, testifying behind six stacks of 28,000 letters of support piled high on the table before him, said supporters had no interest in accessing the intellectual property of vehicle manufacturers, one of the main arguments against the bill. Bradley said small garages and repair shops only want the same repair and diagnostic information available to dealerships, and are willing to pay for it to service their customers.

“It’s about the consumer and making sure the consumer has a reasonable choice about where they want to get their car fixed,” Bradley said, adding that, “If all the bill does is mandate that the information that is out there stay out there, then what’s the harm?”

Glen Wilder, the owner of Wilder Bros. in North Scituate, said the diagnostic tools available to him provide about 90 percent of the information he needs to fix vehicles that come into his shop.

“The idea of all of the information being available is a fallacy,” Wilder said. “We have good scan tools. It’s about getting the rest of the information.”

Opponents, however, said that independent mechanics have access to all the information they need to repair vehicles by purchasing generic and more specialized diagnostic tools from manufacturers or accessing diagnostic codes and repair information on websites maintained by auto manufacturers for a subscription fee.

Some public safety groups also voiced concerns that making manufacturer codes widely accessible would increase the risk of vehicle theft, and organizations such as the Massachusetts High Technology Council worried the bill would have unintended consequences for intellectual property rights in other industries.

“One side says the world is round, while the other side says it’s flat. Well, it’s round to me and I can fix your car,” said Rusty Savignac, the owner of Paxton Garage in Paxton and a representative of the New England Service Station and Auto Repair Association.

Savignac said he has access to “exactly” the same information as dealerships, and suggested any gaps in information available through diagnostic tools can be accessed elsewhere.

“I characterize this legislation as an unnecessary solution to perceived problem,” Savignac said, suggesting that “after-market parts manufacturers are using uninformed repairers to fuel their propaganda machine.”

Asked by Rep. Geraldine Creedon what the harm was in passing the legislation if the information is already available, a spokesman for NESSARA said the group worried that the cost of diagnostic tools for auto repair shops would increase as a result of the litigation that would likely be brought by auto manufacturers.

Rep. Kevin Murphy, a Lowell Democrat, testified that he can’t drive to work without being bombarded by radio ads on both sides of the debate.

“Last session there was one issue I could never get my arms around and that was the right to repair,” Murphy said, noting that “both sides have spent an obscene amount of money advancing their interests.”

Telling the committee that he has spoken to repair shop owners in his district that have come down on opposite sides of the issue, Murphy asked his colleagues to consider his bill (H 1016) that would establish a commission to study the issue and report back by Jan. 13, 2012.

Murphy said the commission should not be the type of “black hole” study committee often used by lawmakers to kill legislation, but one that actually works to find a solution.

“Shouldn’t we have these people sit down and work out a solution that they can all live with that will benefit the consumer?” Murphy said.

Rep. Paul Brodeur complained of the “fundamental disconnect” between testimony being presented to lawmakers, while Kennedy credited Murphy with expressing the sentiment of many lawmakers, and called the idea of a commission a “wise approach.”

With lobbyists and auto industry advocates teeming outside a State House hearing room early Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers decided to move the hearing on the repair bill to the State House’s largest venue, Gardner Auditorium, to accommodate the crowd.

The bill cleared the Senate last session, but died without a vote in the House.

Supporters of the bill claimed Tuesday that opponents had listed without authorization the names of individuals in the repair industry in a Boston Globe ad opposing the bill. Bill opponents, however, provided mimeographed copies of release forms in which the individuals appear to have authorized their names to be used by bill opponents in ads and other materials advocating the legislation’s defeat.

Also, the Right to Repair Coalition on Wednesday called for an IRS investigation into the New England Service Station & Auto Repair Association, citing a WCVB report regarding improperly reported lobbying expenditures.

The accusations flying back and forth contradict testimony from Paul Sullivan, the owner of Sullivan Tire, who told the committee that he did not perceive any “animosity” between the two sides.

“I’d like to congratulate both sides on running a good campaign,” Sullivan said at the outset of his testimony.

Sullivan testified in favor the bill that he said would protect the ability of auto repair technicians and shop owners to earn a living.

“At stake are thousands and thousands of jobs of people repairing automobiles, people who have earned the trust of the consumer because at the end of the day, that’s what you sell – trust,” Sullivan said.

Speaker Pro Tem Patricia Haddad, one of House Speaker Robert DeLeo’s top deputies, testified in favor of the legislation, relating a story about problems she had getting the gas cap on her Toyota fixed at the dealership.

Haddad said any bill that would improve competition for consumers should be taken seriously.

“I honestly think at the end of the day if everyone in this room is concerned about constituents and concerned about customers we will find a way to make it work,” Haddad said.

Increasingly, the Massachusetts High Technology Council is stepping up to create, execute, and lead critical statewide competitiveness strategies. Fostering a vision for our innovation economy under the MassVision2050 banner, the Council solidifies its position as a thought leader providing valuable insights to navigate emerging technologies, facilitates long-term planning, and reinforces the Council's commitment to excellence and action in the evolving Massachusetts tech-driven economy.

To learn more, contact Council President Chris Anderson.