Tesla (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

The legislature’s Transportation Committee advanced a bill Thursday allowing the direct-to-consumer sales of certain electric vehicles, sending it to the state Senate where it expired without action during last year’s session. 

The bill, which the Connecticut legislature has debated for years, would create a carve out in state law for exclusively electric vehicle companies like Tesla or Rivian. It would allow those manufacturers to bypass a requirement that auto companies sell their vehicles through franchise dealerships, a change that dealerships say will hurt their industry.

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Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, said this year’s bill was an improvement on the legislation crafted during previous sessions. Steinberg called the state’s traditional dealership model antiquated. 

“They were probably still picking up after wagons and horses when a lot of these considerations were made,” Steinberg said. “The world has significantly moved on since the dealership model was created. I think it served us very well. I think it should continue to exist but I don’t think that’s a justification to suggest that with the advent of the EV age, that we shouldn’t have other ways to sell vehicles.” 

The committee approved the legislation on a 19-14, generally bipartisan vote Thursday. However, it now heads to the Senate, where leadership has never raised the concept for a vote even after the House passed a similar bill in 2015.

Connecticut dealers have consistently opposed the bill. During its public hearing this year, they cast the bill as an attempt to make special exemptions for a handful of manufacturers who refuse to play by the long-accepted rules. Wayne Weikel, director of state affairs at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said all car companies were interested in selling electric vehicles.

“You would think that there is some law in Connecticut that is prohibiting these companies from selling their products in your state. There is no such law,” Weikel said. “They could already be selling here. All they have to do is follow the same rules on auto distribution that every other automaker is required by law to follow.”

Sen. Will Haskell, co-chair of the committee, said this year’s bill enables the Motor Vehicle Department to issue dealership licenses to the handful of exclusively EV manufacturers who qualify under the bill, preserving the consumer protections associated with buying a car through a dealership. He pointed to lemon laws, invoicing policies and advertising regulations.

“I greatly appreciate the work that’s been done on this legislation to make sure that consumers are protected, even under this new and modern model,” Haskell said. 

However, this year’s legislation also comes with some additional baggage stemming from a canceled pre-session fundraiser by a Westport-based EV club, which told its members that a contribution to the Democratic State Senate Victory Fund could “provide leverage for leadership to move fence-sitters” in the Senate. Courant columnist and former lawmaker Kevin Rennie, first wrote about the event on his blog last month. 

On Thursday, Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, said the issue soured her prior support for the bill.

“Given early actions on this bill that quite frankly came close to criminal pay-to-play, I am shocked that this bill has moved along to the state that it is. I have supported this in the past but on that basis, I will be a no vote today,” Devlin said.