Auto Dealer Bill of Rights

Horse sense is better than horsepower in some races.

Illustration by peter noonan

When we look back at this year’s state legislative session, the most telling and fascinating episode may not be crafting a two-year budget or the failure of expanded gambling in the state. It’s the story about how the 2013 “Auto Dealer Bill of Rights” bill became law.

All 50 states have some version of an auto dealer bill of rights, basically to protect local dealers from unfair practices from car manufacturers that would mandate showroom renovations every three to five years, specifying details such as where the material must be purchased and how it is to be installed. Auto dealers wanted a longer time frame to update their showrooms and flexibility on how to do that.

In a legislature set up not to pass a whole lot of bills — with different parties running different chambers — the bill passed the House 338-30 and the Senate 21-2, even overriding Senate President Peter Bragdon, who was among the two “no” votes.

Notably, the same day the House overwhelmingly voted for the auto dealer bill of rights, they resoundingly defeated a popular casino bill.

Backers of the casino bill had hired a small army of Concord lobbyists to work on their cause, including some of the biggest names in the game. Casino developers had distributed attractive renderings of the plan and the concept had the support of 70 percent of the state’s voters, according to the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Every major candidate for governor last year supported expanded gambling. The winning candidate who became governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, was not only the most pro-gaming of the bunch, but she pretty much staked her first term on the plan. Despite all that and the State Senate voting 16-8 for a casino, the House still voted against the bill.

"Most of the state’s residents had no idea there was even a bill."

And the auto dealer bill? While the auto dealer association says it represents 571 businesses in the state, there aren’t that many owners. Most of the state’s residents had no idea there was even a bill, and whether it passed or not would only very indirectly impact their lives. Governor Hassan was publicly ambivalent about the bill even as it sat at her desk. As mentioned before, the Senate President opposed it.

In the end, the bill passed because the NH Auto Dealers Association understood a few things about state politics and they executed accordingly. First, they knew that state elections are really cheap and a few political donations of $100 to candidates here and there make a lot of friends. Second, our volunteer legislature is large and locally connected but it rarely hears from constituents and even more rarely from employers in their district.

When auto dealers took the initiative to personally lobby their representatives, the out-of-state car manufacturers didn’t stand a chance, even with their expensive newspaper ads. Quietly and with few noticing, the auto dealers did what even the Governor could not this year: pass their biggest legislative priority. 

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