, Salem, MA

October 18, 2012

Question 1: Legislators say never mind on Right to Repair

Compromise bill passed at the Statehouse differs from ballot

By Alan Burke Staff writer
The Salem News

---- — DANVERS — Ted Speliotis has two words for Massachusetts voters this November: “Never mind.”

The Right to Repair Coalition can top that with “Never mind” and “Never mind again.” Even so, it’s likely that the Legislature will have the last word.

Speliotis wants voters to skip Question 1 on the state ballot, the Right to Repair bill that would require car companies — from Ford to General Motors to Toyota — to reveal the computer software codes that help keep their products running. Open codes allow independent repair people to fix the vehicles.

It’s a cause with a lot of support. Many worry that freezing the neighborhood repair shop out of complex repairs gives dealerships a kind of monopoly leading to higher prices. Additionally, more information allows other companies to produce generic auto parts, again at lower costs.

But as chairman of the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, Speliotis worked for three years on getting the various parties to agree to a compromise, which passed during the summer. He believes the new law is an improvement on the ballot question and thinks it will provide a template for other states.

The prospect that most voters would agree and vote for the ballot measure probably contributed to the willingness of the car companies to reach a compromise on the issue.

“Clearly, people want Right to Repair,” Speliotis said.

The compromise makes some allowances on behalf of the car companies that the ballot measure does not, Speliotis said. For example, under both measures, information will have to be made available to repair shops starting on Nov. 6. Under the Legislature’s bill, standardized diagnostic tool requirements would have to be complied with in 2018. The ballot initiative, by contrast, would mandate that it be done by 2015. In addition, the compromise bill protects trade secrets and security measures, such as electronic keys.

The compromise seemed reasonable enough at first. The Right to Repair Coalition endorsed it, declaring in a written statement, “We believe that this bill ensures an acceptable agreement that will safeguard all of the stakeholders.”

But the compromise bill passed too late for anyone to pull the question off the ballot.

“We can’t physically take the question off,” Speliotis said.

And now comes the second “never mind,” as the Right to Repair Coalition is taking back its endorsement. The compromise broke down, according to the State House News Service, after groups like AAA and the Massachusetts Motorcycle Association backed away, saying the compromise doesn’t give consumers enough information.

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

His group had been expected to join in the advertising campaign, on billboards, radio and television, telling voters to ignore the question they had sponsored. But the fact that they’ve changed their minds and still want people to vote for it — and the fact it’s likely to pass — might not make any difference.

Speliotis won’t say that the Legislature will simply institute the compromise anyway — “I can’t predict the future” — but he admits it’s “probable” that they will do exactly that.

Mike Garabedian, a Peabody city councilor and an executive at Ira Motors, greets the compromise with resignation.

“We’ve been fighting this for two years up on Beacon Hill,” he said. He lobbied Speliotis himself.

The compromise notwithstanding, he said, “It could, down the road, cost jobs. The car industry employs a lot of people.” He also contends that even with the necessary codes, small “mom and pop” repair shops are more likely to leave your car worse than when you brought it in.

Finally, Garabedian argues that car companies spend huge amounts on new technology, and the law requires them to simply give away some of the edge it gives them.

That could dampen enthusiasm for the expensive research and development needed to improve car performance in the future.

Garabedian makes any number of arguments, but with little fire. Right to Repair, he realizes, is now a done deal.