The perennial ‘Tesla Bill’ struggles to gain traction

Telsa parked outside the state capitol building Credit: Hugh McQuaid/CTNewsJunkie

It seemed unlikely that a perennial bill to legalize direct-to-consumer sales of certain EVs would gain traction this year, as two key legislative supporters suggested the policy would no longer be necessary as traditional manufacturers move ever more in the electric vehicle market.

Almost every year, a state legislator proposes a bill to create an exemption to a Connecticut law that requires auto companies to sell their vehicles through franchise dealerships. The contemplated exception applies to companies like Tesla, Rivian and Lucid, which exclusively make electric vehicles and stick to a business model that bypasses dealerships in favor of direct sales.

Increasingly, supporters tout the expected environmental and economic benefits of new business and more electric vehicles, while the state’s traditional car dealers push to kill the proposal, which they see as an unfair presumption for manufacturers unwilling to Follow the rules. While the bill has gone as far as passing the House, it has never crossed the finish line.

Although this year’s long legislative session began last week, early signs suggest that the concept may already be close to stalling.

At least one legislator has proposed a bill on the subject. Rep. Keith Denning, a first-term Democrat from Wilton, introduced a bill to the Transportation Committee that, as currently written, would allow any manufacturer to bypass the dealership model.

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Unlike in previous years, however, the concept doesn’t seem to have many supporters in the state legislature. As of noon Thursday, Rep. Roland Lemar, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said no lawmaker had requested a public hearing to review the bill.

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“I wonder if its time has passed,” said Lemar, who has supported the concept during previous sessions. “I have been contacted about perhaps 50 different bills and not a single lawmaker has contacted me to request a public hearing on a Tesla bill for this year.”

That lack of interest is unusual, he said.

In the past, Lemar has said he viewed the so-called “Tesla bill” as a proof of concept, demonstrating a market for electric vehicles in Connecticut. And while Lemar continues to advocate for broader use of electric vehicles and an expansion of the necessary infrastructure, he said he no longer felt the need to create exemptions.

“I thought it worthwhile for Connecticut to make an exception for [Tesla] and other US electric car manufacturers,” Lemar said. “But this year I don’t see the urgency to act and amend the Connecticut laws given that every other automaker in the country is moving forward with electric vehicle production.”

Lemar isn’t the only concept supporter hitting the brakes this year. Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, a Westport Democrat who has championed the bill in the past, said he still supports the concept of direct selling as a matter of consumer freedom. But, like Lemar, he felt less urgency to change the rules given the proliferation of electric vehicles by traditional manufacturers.

Then there’s the matter of Elon Musk, the Tesla CEO who has been in the headlines at least since October when he bought the social media platform Twitter. This week, various outlets reported that Musk lost $165 billion between November 2021 and December 2022, breaking a world record for the loss of personal fortune.

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Steinberg said Musk had made it difficult to support changing state law to benefit his company.

“On the very merits, because the industry is changing, there’s a little less urgency. Then you launch the Elon Musk brand, which unfortunately has made it more difficult in many ways to appear to support that,” Steinberg said.

At the very least, Steinberg said it was time to retire the colloquial title of the bill, “the Tesla bill.”

“We won’t use it anymore. That phrase is now dead,” Steinberg said. “Even before Musk went crazy, in my opinion, it had ceased to be Tesla’s bill because of the rapid change in the industry itself.”

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