A Tesla (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

With a mid-session change in leadership, the Transportation Committee shifted gears Wednesday and passed legislation allowing the direct-to-consumer sale of electric vehicles over objections from opponents who believed the bill was parked for the year. 

“Perhaps the elephant in the room is that I came into this committee halfway through the session as chair and this is a bill that is important to me, important to my constituents and, I think, important to a lot of people,” Sen. Will Haskell said after an hour of debate on the bill.

The issue is one that has come before the Connecticut legislature for the last several years: state law requires auto manufacturers to sell their products through franchise dealerships and electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla insist on selling directly to customers. As a result, Connecticut residents must travel out of state to buy a Tesla. 

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The legislation, which passed committee 25-10, narrowly applies to companies like Tesla, Lucid and Rivian whose products are strictly electric. 

In the past, Connecticut car dealers have successfully fended off repeated attempts at changing the law. On Wednesday, opponents of the bill said they felt they had an understanding with the panel’s leadership that the legislation was essentially dead after a public hearing in February.

It seems that changed after a leadership turnover earlier this month when Haskell took over the Senate chairman post from Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester. Haskell, a 25-year-old Democrat from Westport, was not shy about changing course.

“This is simply an issue that can’t be delayed or postponed another year. Not when 38% of our carbon emissions come from the transportation sector,” he said. 

The bill is not a partisan issue. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle alternatively praised it for its environmental and economic potential and objected to the impact which auto dealers say it will have on their industry. 

There were also process complaints. Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, said he felt as though a promise by the committee had been broken.

“What are we doing? Does that mean that our word is no longer our bond?” Martin said. “What happens going forward? Are we not going to be able to trust what another colleague says?”

Haskell politely told Martin that the bill had gone through the legislature’s typical vetting process and was not the first proposal to be shuffled back out of obscurity. 

“Every day, bills are prioritized and deprioritized by committee leadership. I decided in my new role as chair to make this bill a priority,” he said.

Despite the committee’s vote to send the bill to the Senate, its fate remains uncertain. The panel has approved similar bills in the past only to see them fail to clear a later hurdle. In 2015, the House passed a comparable bill but the Senate never raised it for a vote. 

Some lawmakers said that if Connecticut was intent on moving forward with the bill this year, the legislature should have also considered proposals to ease franchise requirements on auto-dealers. Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said she felt the committee was unfairly favoring Tesla, a company with no ties to the community. 

“Because they’ve decided that their business model is different than what Connecticut law has established, we’re going to change the rules for them,” she said. 

Haskell said he did not believe it benefited Connecticut to force consumers to travel to another state if they wanted to purchase a Tesla, Lucid or Rivian vehicle. 

“I have yet to be convinced that we’re better off with Tesla expanding operations in all of our neighboring states and hiring these green collar workers but not in the state of Connecticut,” he said.