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In what’s become an annual tradition at the state Capitol, legislation authorizing Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers to sell directly to car buyers stalled out and died.
Car dealers have honed their skills over the last four or five years fighting the measure that would breach Connecticut’s decades-old dealership model. The legislation failed to advance before the General Assembly adjourned at midnight Wednesday.
Other factors that helped spike the measure included a crowded legislative agenda making up for time lost last year due to COVID-19, a focus by the Senate chairman of the transportation committee on environmental benefits of electric vehicles instead of job creation and a split in organized labor, a key constituency of majority Democrats.
“Why in the world are we turning this business away?” said Sen. Will Haskell, co-chair of the transportation committee.
Gov. Ned Lamont, who supported the legislation, said Thursday the future of cars is electrification and forcing Connecticut car buyers to shop in New York City’s suburbs and western Massachusetts is “not the right way to go.”
“I think the status quo is pretty tough to change in this state and there are some very influential lobbyists here,” he said.
Sarah Fryxell, president of the Connecticut Automotive Retailers Association, said dealers are pleased the bill died.
“They’re happy to see the legislature once again put consumers first,” she said.
James Chen, vice president of public policy at Rivian, said the car maker and its allies will continue to fight for “consumer choice and the widespread availability of electric vehicles.”
“Limiting sales of electric vehicles to a single method of distribution in state is the wrong choice for the free market and blocks Connecticut from achieving its climate and economic development goals,” he said.
Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Haskell, a Westport Democrat, and other backers in March rolled out the legislation that would permit electric vehicle manufacturers including Tesla, Rivian and Lucid to sell directly to the consumer. Connecticut law authorizes dealers, not manufacturers, to sell to buyers, which runs counter to the business model used by Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers.
Direct sales create a better marketplace for consumers by providing choice, Dan West, director of public policy at Rivian, told lawmakers early this year.
“Consumers can purchase an electric vehicle from the likes of Rivian or they can purchase a traditional vehicle from their local dealer,” he said. “This legislation will not harm existing dealers.”
Dealers say they provide customers with local and dependable service and that they are selling increasing numbers of electric vehicles.
Barry Kresch of Westport, president of the Electric Vehicle Club of Connecticut, questioned car dealerships’ commitment to the sale of electric vehicles.
“They prioritize protectionism over innovation,” he said.
As he unveiled the legislation in March, Haskell cited clean air concerns and pointed to a goal of putting 500,000 electric cars on Connecticut’s roads by 2030, up from 12,000 now.
“I wonder slightly if I made a mistake in framing this from an environmental point of view,” Haskell said Wednesday. “We weren’t talking nearly enough about the fact this is about creating jobs in Connecticut.”
The legislation was approved March 24 in a 25-10 vote in the transportation committee, but went no further.
In a legislative session focused on the state’s two-year budget, debates over taxing and spending priorities and racial equity, legalizing recreational marijuana and other issues, an electric vehicle measure was not a top priority.
In addition, differences between two labor unions didn’t help jump start the legislation in Democratic ranks. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, whose members work on Tesla projects, actively backed the legislation while the United Auto Workers, which has fought Tesla over unionization and related matters. opposed the bill. The union was against previous state legislation and instead backed the dealerships.
Representatives of the two unions did not respond to requests for comment.
Haskell said he crafted the legislation as a compromise requiring manufacturer to have an entirely electric fleet to sell cars directly to prevent dominant market players such as Ford and General Motors from competing with Connecticut car dealerships.
Still, Fryxell said the franchise dealership network is the “model that protects consumers.”
“The compromise legislation did not address that issue,” she said.
Haskell said the legislative effort left him frustrated. It parallels Colorado legislation he said struck a compromise backed by dealerships “because they recognize change was coming.”
“They wanted to protect their jobs and their business model. but in the Land of Steady Habits we couldn’t see eye to eye on that,” Haskell said. “This was going to be bringing 21st century green collar jobs to Connecticut and yet for some reason yet again we’ve decided to say, ‘no thanks.’ ”
Stephen Singer can be reached at email@example.com.