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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: Senate is venue for showdown between automakers, auto dealers

The New Hampshire Senate is stepping into the middle of a fight between auto dealers and automakers.

The Senate on Thursday will vote on legislation granting new legal protections to auto dealerships by strengthening an existing state law known as the Dealer Bill of Rights. Similar laws are on the books in all 50 states.

Supporters say the bill would strengthen the hand of local car and truck dealers in dealing with their powerful suppliers, the big automakers such as Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda.

“The manufacturers have wide-ranging power to make your life really good or really difficult. . . . All the dealers are asking for in this is, ‘We’re asking for some transparency, we’re looking for consistency,’ ” said Sen. Andy Sanborn, a Bedford Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor.

Those manufacturers, of course, aren’t happy with the bill. They say it’s government interference with private business relationship.

“We feel that the bill as proposed, it really dictates the terms of the business relationship between two private parties. . . . It’s government intervention in a business matter that would essentially allow the government to pick winners and losers,” said Dan Gage, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a national group representing 12 big automakers. “And we think that’s a dangerous precedent.”

Car buyers might not always draw a distinction between locally owned dealerships and the companies that make the vehicles they sell. Dealers negotiate and sign contracts with automakers to carry their vehicles, and agree to certain conditions. But, Sanborn said, the relationship can be one-sided in favor of the automakers.

“If you’re a GM dealer, there’s not a lot of other manufacturers of GM cars than GM,” Sanborn said. “So it becomes a captive relationship.”

Hence the bill introduced by Sanborn, which would be the first update of New Hampshire’s dealer law since 2009, when GM and Chrysler went through bankruptcy restructuring and began to cut ties with thousands of dealerships across the country. It would grant more protection and powers to New Hampshire auto dealers in a number of areas.

For example, it’s common for automakers to tell their franchise dealerships to improve and upgrade their facilities.

The industry average is seven years between renovations, said Gage, who said automakers have a vested interest in making sure their vehicles are displayed and sold in the best possible facilities.

“When you’re selling a retail product in a very competitive industry, brand positioning matters,” Gage said.

With the new legislation, though, dealers could only be required to upgrade their facilities every 15 years, which Sanborn said is a “reasonable and rational” guideline.

For dealers, it’s a question of local control, said Pete McNamara, president of the New Hampshire Automobile Dealers Association. Facility upgrades are expensive, he said, and locally owned dealers shouldn’t have the timing of construction or the design of their buildings dictated by distant corporate offices.

“We shouldn’t have Detroit or Tokyo telling us how to sell our vehicles exactly down to the size of a showroom floor tile, what we should be doing there,” McNamara said. “Selling cars is based on relationships. It’s about the quality of the vehicle and the price of the vehicle. And it’s not about having a leather couch in your waiting room.”

The automakers are pushing back, hard. The alliance took out full-page ads last week in the Monitor and other newspapers, calling Senate Bill 126 “a lemon of a law” that contradicts New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto and “could cost consumers dearly.”

But SB 126 will come to the Senate floor Thursday with 20 of the 24 senators signed on as sponsors. So it seems likely to pass, and head to the House.

Horn vs. Hassan, again

State Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn and Gov. Maggie Hassan are butting heads, again.

Horn has seized any opportunity to needle Hassan in her first seven weeks as party chairwoman, sending out a steady stream of press releases, attacking the Democrat’s proposed state budget as a “house of cards” and even filing a formal complaint with the attorney general’s office to accuse her of breaking state law.

The latest issue: Charlie McIntyre, executive director of the New Hampshire Lottery Commission, apparently approached several members of the House Ways and Means Committee and offered to talk to them about the casino bill headed their way from the Senate.

Lebanon Democratic Rep. Susan Almy, the panel’s chairwoman, called his move “highly uncommon” in an email to committee members.

Hooksett Rep. David Hess, the deputy House GOP leader, went further, writing in a reply that McIntyre’s request was “inappropriate” and unacceptable.

Hassan was then asked about it by a New Hampshire Public Radio reporter, but didn’t give a direct answer. (Her office later said she hasn’t spoken directly to McIntyre but that her staff did ask him to reach out to legislators to answer any questions about the casino bill.)

Horn filed a right-to-know request with Hassan’s office, writing in a letter to Hassan that she wanted records related to “any attempt made by you or your staff to compel the New Hampshire Lottery Commission to lobby legislators to support casino gambling.”

Horn’s language was, well, sharp.

“Your disgraceful lack of candor and forthrightness raises very serious questions about an unwillingness to be open and transparent about the actions of your administration,” she wrote to Hassan.

Hassan’s chief of staff, Pam Walsh, quickly wrote back to say no such records existed, and offered some sharp language of her own, telling Horn, “you seem to be greatly misinformed.”

Horn fired back Friday with another right-to-know request, this time to the lottery commission, and implied Hassan’s office was skirting state law regarding lobbying. And Hassan made fun of Horn at a breakfast Friday morning in Nashua, including a veiled jab over the lien against Horn’s house for unpaid taxes, according to a video posted by the Nashua Patch.

With the casino bill such a vital component of Hassan’s budget, and the issue of expanded gambling such a controversial subject in the House, expect plenty more sniping like this over the next few months.

Biennial budgets

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is no stranger to biennial budgets, having helped craft three of them as New Hampshire governor. And she thinks the federal government can learn from her state’s example.

Shaheen, a Democrat, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, introduced legislation last week to switch the federal government from one-year budgets to two-year budgets.

“We can’t fix our debt and deficits until we fix our budget process, and biennial budgeting is a smart way to move forward,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Similar legislation has been introduced in Congress before but hasn’t gone far.

And, of course, the Senate hasn’t passed any sort of budget since 2009. The federal government has kept the lights on with a series of continuing resolutions.

Quiet complaints

Two formal complaints have been filed so far this year with the Legislative Ethics Committee. But it’s not clear what they’re about or who they’re against.

The ethics complaints were handed out Tuesday to the committee’s members (minus Chairman Martin Gross, who wasn’t in town).

The panel will conduct an initial review at some point to decide if either or both of the complaints warrant a preliminary investigation, the next step in the process.

But unless that happens, committee members – and the person or people who made the complaints – are all barred from discussing them publicly.

“Unless the respondent waives confidentiality, everything is confidential . . . in that first stage,” said Richard Lambert, the ethics committee’s executive administrator.

Hats in the ring?

The 2014 campaign field could get crowded quick, at least on the GOP side.

The governor’s office, a U.S. Senate seat and two U.S. House seats will all be on the ballot next year, and all have Democratic incumbents.

While no Republicans have formally declared yet, a number of candidates have floated their names for various offices, including ex-gubernatorial candidate Kevin Smith (for governor), Mont Vernon Rep. Bill O’Brien (for the 2nd District congressional seat), ex-state senator Gary Lambert (also in the 2nd District) and ex-congressman Frank Guinta (for the 1st District seat, Senate or the governor’s office).

The latest name in the mix: Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, who WMUR first reported is thinking about a run for governor or Congress (he lives in the 1st District).

Manchester votes

Voters in Manchester’s Ward 2 will pick a new state representative Tuesday.

A special election is scheduled to replace Democrat Robert Thompson, who moved to Florida. Democrat William O’Neil faces Republican Win Hutchinson.

As it stands now, Democrats have 218 votes in the House to 179 for the Republicans, with three seats vacant, including the Manchester seat.

The week ahead

The House is doing double duty this week, with sessions scheduled for both Wednesday and Thursday.

There’s a long list of bills on the House agenda, including legislation dealing with hot-button issues like Medicaid expansion, casinos, the stand-your-ground self-defense law, prison privatization, medicinal marijuana and voter ID.

The Senate will meet Thursday, and the Executive Council will meet Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the House Finance Committee’s divisions will be hammering out their budgets this week.

They’ll present to the full committee a week from tomorrow, on March 25, and the panel will then finalize a state budget for consideration by the full House.

Quick takes

∎ New Hampshire was one of eight states to receive an “A” last week on the Sunlight Foundation’s “Transparency Report Card,” which ranked the accessibility of information on legislative websites.

∎ Theo Groh is the new president of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, replacing Liz Kulig, the newly elected chairwoman of the Manchester City Democrats.

∎ Jim Finnegan, whose editorials ran in the Manchester Union Leader from 1957 to 1995, died March 9 at the age of 82.

Out for blood

The American Red Cross is looking to collect some blood from senators, representatives and other legislative hangers-on.

The annual State House Complex blood drive is scheduled for Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Appointments, organizers said, are encouraged and can be made through the Legislature’s health services office at 271-2757.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

Legacy Comments1

"" would essentially allow the government to pick winners and losers"" a strange statement coming from an industry that the US government "picked" to win with the bail outs. Interesting that the government can change the private contract between these two sides but the Federal Government said they could do nothing to stop the financial companies from giving out those million dollar bonuses with the bailout money?????

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