Lame duck Question 1

Friday August 3, 2012

Massachusetts has seen some odd situations arise involving ballot questions but the one involving this November’s so-called Right to Repair referendum is quite special. Both proponents, who worked to collect the necessary signatures to get the question on the ballot, and opponents will now combine forces to urge voters to reject the ballot question.

This situation arose because of a last minute compromise reached July 31 between automakers and dealers on one side and the Massachusetts Right to Re pair Coalition on the other that was ap proved at the wire by the Legislature. In the compromise, car manufacturers agreed to make repair codes and other diagnostic information available to independent mechanics by 2018, three years later than the coalition had demanded. The compromise, which still must be signed into law by Governor Patrick, which appears likely, renders irrelevant Question 1 on the ballot, which had required auto makers to release this information by 2015.

This is quite a compromise on the part of auto manufacturers, who under our capitalist economic system should be able to protect proprietary information like access codes and not be expected to give it away for free. Independent mechanics argued that the complexity of today’s computerized cars means they must have this information to make repairs they generally do for lower fees than dealerships. The mechanics and the consumer groups aligned with them won the day with the compromise, but manufacturers and dealers will now have six years rather than three to adjust to a new playing field that will cost them repair revenue.

The compromise having been reached, the Right to Repair Coalition will now urge voters to reject its own ballot question, and will be joined in this effort by its former adversaries. It could be argued that the presence of the ballot question forced the hand of manufacturers, but if the question is approved by voters anyway it will require the Legislature to replace its language with that of the compromise when it returns to session next January. If so, expect an outcry from those who voted for the ballot question because they don’t like the 2018 compromise. Ballot questions certainly make for messy democracy.


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