, Newburyport, MA

October 20, 2012

Suddenly, battle lines drawn over auto repair question

Newburyport Daily News

---- — BOSTON — In a pre-election surprise, the committee behind the ballot question governing access to auto repair information has abruptly reversed course, announcing it will now urge passage of Question 1 despite a previous agreement with auto makers to encourage voters to skip the question in light a compromise law that’s already on the books.

Automobile manufacturing groups responded by announcing they have no plans to drop an advertising campaign urging voters to skip the ballot question when they go to vote on Nov. 6, adhering to the spirit of the agreement struck in the final days of the legislative session in July.

“Right to Repair” allows garage owners to get access to computer codes and information that can be vital to quickly diagnosing problems with cars. Car manufacturers have been hesitant to allow this access, which has given a competitive advantage to auto dealer service departments. The independent garages argue that auto dealers charge higher rates for repairs, and so customers are paying more than they should.

The Right to Repair Committee over the summer had backed away from its proposal after reaching a deal with automobile makers over a compromise law, which passed when it was too late to pull the question off the ballot. The Legislature in late July whisked the compromise through to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk and he signed it, making Massachusetts the first state to pass a law on an issue that’s been fought over nationally.

Part of that compromise was an agreement to inform voters that the ballot question was no longer necessary, but over the past two weeks that pact has eroded starting with AAA breaking away from the coalition and making the argument that the compromise law left too much room for auto makers to avoid sharing all repair information.

The Massachusetts Motorcycle Association, an original member of the Right to Repair Coalition, this week also endorsed the ballot question, expressing its opposition to the compromise law that the group said excluded motorcycles.

“We are now, and have always been a ‘Yes on Question 1’ committee,” said Art Kinsman, a spokesman for the Right to Repair Committee.

Kinsman said the announcement was an acknowledgment that the ballot question “is almost certainly going to pass.” He said coalition members are “still supporting” the ballot question.

“With the outcome of the question likely to be a yes vote from voters the real important thing now is to continue to work with manufacturers and the Legislature on reconciling the two proposals. That becomes the most important thing to think about and we are still committed to working with all parties on a good outcome,” Kinsman said.

Both the ballot question and the compromise law stipulate that repair information must be made available to independent repairers staring on Nov. 6 when the law takes effect. “That’s common to both proposals and to us that’s been the most important thing. We have time to reconcile the rest of it,” Kinsman said.

If the ballot question passes, some of the differences the Legislature will have to sift through include a provision in the compromise that gave auto manufacturers until model year 2018, instead of the ballot question’s 2015, to comply with standardized diagnostic tool requirements.

The Right to Repair Coalition also backed off language contained in the ballot question that requires dealers to forfeit their licenses to sell cars in Massachusetts if the parent manufactures violate the information sharing laws.

“Automakers applaud the fair and thoughtful way the Massachusetts Legislature addressed this difficult and complex issue. We continue to support the negotiated Right to Repair agreement that resulted and has since become law, a law that is in the best interests of Massachusetts voters, car owners and all parties involved,” said the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers in a statement.

The manufacturers and automakers over the past two weeks have begun running radio ads urging voters to “never mind” when it comes to the auto repair question, one of three initiatives on the ballot.

“Question 1 on the ballot is no longer necessary. It’s done. We all won. Skip Question 1,” a narrator says in one spots paid for by the Citizens Committee for Safe and Fair Repair.

“We have no plans to pull them or to change message at this time,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, in an email.

Kinsman said the Right to Repair Committee had plans to run similar ads, but had not yet gone forward with the campaign and had made no decisions on whether to spend money on ads urging voters to support the question instead.

Automakers and other business interests had strongly opposed the ballot question, calling it “poorly written,” saying it put intellectual property at risk and arguing it made “highly deceptive” claims that repairers do not have access to the information they need to fix cars.

Dealers also felt they won some protections in the compromise law for franchisees, protecting the dealerships from manufacturers setting up repair networks outside the dealership structure.

Just how quickly the Legislature might act to resolve the competing proposals should Question 1 pass remains an open question. Lawmakers have shown a reluctance to engage on the issue, with many saying they’re confused by it. Kinsman suggested there’s no rush given that many of the requirements don’t take effect for several years.

Rep. Theodore Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat who as chair of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection helped forge the compromise, said this week it’s hard to predict what the Legislature will do, and added that he hoped both sides would “honor the compromise.”