Amid grumbling about a dubious fundraising effort, lawmakers on the Transportation Committee raised a familiar bill Wednesday to allow the direct-to-consumer sale of certain electric vehicles.
During a late morning Zoom meeting, the committee agreed to again consider making an exception to state law requiring auto manufacturers to sell vehicles through franchise dealerships. The bill, which has stalled in the past under lobbying efforts by Connecticut dealerships, would allow certain electric-only companies like Tesla to sell direct-to-customers.
In its previous incarnations, the bill has generally drawn support and opposition from both sides of the aisle. But on Wednesday, several Republicans on the transportation panel said the effort had been “tainted” by an aborted fundraising attempt involving an electric vehicle association and two Democratic lawmakers.
“There are many in the Senate that have great concerns over some of the previous actions earlier in the year concerning fundraisers that implied pay-for-play,” Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said. “That fundraiser was canceled but it was an implication that somewhat taints this particular subject.”
The controversy stems from an article by Courant columnist and former lawmaker Kevin Rennie, who posted to his blog an email apparently from the Westport Electric Car Club, now known as the EV Club of Connecticut, asking its members to attend a subsequently-canceled fundraising event which was expected to feature Sen. Will Haskell, D-Westport, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff.
The email implied contributing to a Democratic State Senate Victory Fund would “provide leverage for leadership to move fence-sitters” to support the long-languishing direct sales bill. The message did not specify who had given the EV club the impression that contributions might equate to support for the measure. Organizers canceled the event following Rennie’s article.
In a text message earlier this month, Barry Kresch, president of the EV Club of Connecticut, reiterated the group’s support for the direct sales bill and said the fundraising event would not move forward. He declined to comment further on the matter.
During Wednesday’s meeting, Haskell told members of the committee he remained supportive of the legislation but canceled plans to attend the event when he learned of the email. Haskell said he hoped the step would allay concerns.
“I’m always excited to speak about electric vehicles and always happy to meet with constituents but when I learned about an inappropriate email that had been sent out by one of the fundraiser participants, I decided not to participate and the fundraiser was canceled,” Haskell said. “There’s been no change in my opinion either way on this bill because of these events. I continue to strongly believe consumers should have the choice as to where they buy their next vehicle.”
During last year’s legislative session, Haskell was instrumental in guiding the bill out of the Transportation Committee on a bipartisan vote. It passed the committee over the objections of a bipartisan sect of opponents, which included Somers. It later expired due to inaction by the Senate.
Republicans signaled Wednesday that bipartisan support may be more difficult to come by this year. Two Republicans who helped vote the bill out of committee last year, Reps. Devin Carney of East Lyme and Laura Devlin of Fairfield, remarked on the tone set by the fundraiser.
“Essentially a pay-to-play scheme in a very partisan way has just put a cloud over this legislation,” Devlin said. “It’s really unfortunate because that should never have occurred, if it did. To even have something posted is so inappropriate… I’ll support raising this for a public hearing but in no way does that indicate any support beyond that.”