Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait-don't turn the page. Yeah, we know what you're thinking: This is probably one of those stories about contacting my congressman. Booooring. And we know those types of articles sorta make your eyes glaze over like a 5 a.m., fresh-from-the-oven, Original Glazed Krispy Kreme doughnut. Speaking of, mmmm doughnut.
But what we're talking about here are muscle cars, performance parts, homebuilt cars, the aftermarket, and all the other stuff you dig about street machines and drag racing. We've learned what's really going on in the heads of government types when it comes to trying to ban our fun. And let's just say they've come uncomfortably close a few times. See, not so booooring.
One of the main players with its A-game on when it comes to taking up the cause is the SEMA Action Network (SAN). Sure, the name sounds like it might be a new channel on your boob tube, with shows about explosions and people running for their lives and full-throttle crashes, but SAN is a group of enthusiasts like us and car clubs (and is 40,000 members strong) who rally together when it comes to legislation related to street machines (and collectibles, four-wheeling, and all automotive walks of life). We know you've already heard of SEMA when we talk about heading to Vegas for the SEMA show's new product unveilings-one of the only times when what happens in Vegas doesn't stay there-but the org is also extremely active on government issues, monitoring legislation, drafting laws, and basically, having our backs.
Here's the interesting part: Many lawmakers have enlisted in the Congressional Automotive Performance and Motorsports Caucus and State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus. So, they're car guys. Even better: SAN has their ear.
You can become a member of SAN, and it costs nada to do it. You won't be asked to chain yourself to your car in front of the White House or your governor's mansion. At least we don't think that's the case. You will, however, be emailed a monthly newsletter and alerts about bills (including how you could be affected, what you need to do, and whom to contact). There are even perks to SAN membership, such as access to online info about some vehicle laws in your state, full access to the SEMA government affairs staff, and the ability to submit photos of your car to the website and for inclusion in the newsletter-not to mention, being personally responsible for protecting what we do.
And now, that million-dollar question: Can they outlaw street machines?
Legislators Are Targeting Street Machines
Not really. It's generally not as calculated as it might feel, especially at the state level. For the most part, your state's reps are citizen legislators who go back to real jobs when not in session, and their legislature might meet only for a month and a half or two months every year, or every other year, such as in Texas and Montana. Therefore, when they are in session, they're dealing with the big issues-budget, taxation, and education-and not necessarily obsessing about modified cars.
But when an automotive issue does surface, it still might not even be about sticking it to us; there may simply be a lack of information and knowledge on the legislator's part about how to properly word the legislation to not affect us in a bad way. This year in Utah, there was a bill aimed at loud motorcycles, but the legislation was written to not actually specify just motorcycles, so it would have ended up affecting all types of vehicles if it had passed. SAN has seen time and again that once a conversation has taken place, many legislators are very reasonable and willing to consider SAN's model legislation on various issues, which has been written by SEMA staff in our favor.
OK, but California Really Hates Street Machines, Right?
Some legislators, such as in California and New York, sit all year-unlike the citizen legislators, these are full-time legislators. And many, many issues can come up just in California alone, since the state has various regulatory agencies, and each of the regions in Cali has an air-quality management district that regulates the air quality within that district. Plus, there's the Air Resources Board, the Bureau of Automotive Repair, and other agencies constantly coming out with new regulations.
Thousands of bills are introduced in California each session, with each bill having at least an initial hearing. And, yes, some of those bills may involve cars, equipment, or add-ons. But that's not necessarily an antihobby movement-blame the state's huge budget deficit and, with that, a desperation to find more avenues of revenue, posthaste. See the sidebar "The New Threat on the Horizon" for a hint of what's to come.
Write Angry Letters to Your Lawmakers-Not
You should totally write a nastygram to your lawmakers to let them know how upset you are about proposed legislation. OK, about that nastygram part-don't do it. Take a reasonable and professional approach in your letter, remembering that, in many cases, the lawmakers probably just need a better understanding of how the legislation would affect you. On SAN's website, there are samples of how to write an effective letter.
What you should be trying to do is create a relationship with your local lawmakers to open the lines of communication not only for right now, but for the future, too. "In many cases, lawmakers are pursuing broad policy initiatives that may inadvertently affect the enjoyment of the automotive hobby," explains SEMA's VP of Government Affairs, Steve McDonald. "Often, they are people you can sit down with over a beer to discuss alternative approaches that can allow them to meet stated goals without unnecessarily restricting vehicle modifications."
Big Win: Cash for Clunkers
What? The Cash for Clunkers program was a big win? Believe us, it could have been way worse. State Cash for Clunkers programs were originally launched to offset emissions by the stationary source polluters-utilities and smokestack industries. Last year, the U.S. Congress used the program as a way to ignite new-car sales. You trade in your older car, get a nice wad of cash, and go buy something shiny off a lot. But the win for street machines and all older cars was in the fine print.
"Our goal was to work with the government to incentivize new-car sales, but not at the expense of the unnecessary scrappage of the vintage cars and parts that are the lifeblood of our restoration industry," McDonald tells Car Craft. So while it might have felt like the entire program was a public execution of all cars, SAN was successful at working with the legislature to get an exemption put into the bill that basically disallowed vehicles 25 years or older from being subjected to the crusher.
"Often, scrappage programs are problematic, because on the surface, and to some people, they sound like good ideas-you're crushing an old car, cleaning up the environment, and you're putting them into a brand-new, potentially cleaner car," McDonald says. "But what they don't account for is the fact that there's a whole series of business entities and automotive enthusiasts that suffer as a result." Not to mention that older cars are usually just hobby cars, very well maintained and clean, and driven maybe a few hundred miles each year-not the gross polluters they're fingered to be.
Big Win: The Aftermarket Reaction
Sometimes the challenges created by legislation turn into great opportunities for the aftermarket. McDonald tells us that in 2002, SAN was able to institute an exhaust noise decibel standard under the applicable SAE test procedure in California. "There was a notion that if manufacturers could build product that would comply with the California 95-decibel standard, their product would have a greater likelihood of being accepted in any of the other 49 states," he says. "So by virtue of giving them a very objective goal to reach-'Here is the test standard; you test the product, and essentially you can market it as being compliant with the current CA statute and regulation'-it created sort of a new marketing angle with manufacturers. They were able to tell their customers and installers that this is a system that was designed and built in compliance with the California standard." Another great example is GM Performance Parts' new 400hp, E-Rod, LS3-based crate engine, which has a clean emissions system.
Big Win: Collector Car Appreciation Day
Collector Car Appreciation Day-in clinical form, Senate Resolution 513-was put on the books for July 9, 2010. SEMA, SAN, and the Automotive Restoration Market Association council hoped to raise awareness of how important car collecting and restoration is in America, and obviously lawmakers agreed with that concept-a big score for our side. SEMA is now intending to work with the Senate or House, or both, to make it an annual event. To recap: a car day!
Big Win: Nitrous and Power Boosters
Can you guess which was one of the first states to try to ban nitrous? If you said Nebraska, you're correct and probably the only person who got it right. That legislator was attempting to limit any system or equipment that increased a vehicle's power; therefore, it wasn't just about nitrous but also focused on turbochargers, superchargers, and other performance parts. While the aim was to restrict nitrous the on road, the legislation's wording would have banned nitrous altogether. The solution? A collaboration between SAN and nitrous manufacturers. Model legislation was written by SAN to allow the car to be equipped with nitrous as long as the supply tubes were disconnected, or the canisters removed, when on public roads. Nebraska bit. Since then, SAN model legislation has been enacted in Arkansas, Mississippi, Maine, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and even the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
Big Win: Best Bills of the '09-'10 Legislative Session
See, it's not all crappy legislation having to be fought-there have been many bills introduced this session that should get a thumbs-up from enthusiasts. These include Idaho's HB591, which sought to exclude vehicles driven fewer than 1,000 miles per year from the state's mandatory emissions exemption program-regardless of the vehicle's age. Maryland's HB252 bill would have excluded newer vehicles from the state's mandatory emissions inspection program for the first four years after production. Washington's SB5246 and Michigan's SB590 bills used SAN model legislation to prohibit cities or towns from enforcing any restrictions that prevent automobile collectors from pursuing their hobby. In other words, inop, wrecked, or beaters, including parts cars, stored on private property would only require being out of public view. "Once we get our argument across, we find for the most part, a fairly receptive legislature," McDonald says.
In other words-enthusiasts: 1, street machines being outlawed: 0
And the Issue that Won't Die is . . .
. . exhaust noise. And it doesn't take much to get a bill introduced; exhaust bills often come into existence because of a single constituent who might have an obnoxious neighbor and is trying to look for ways to make his own neighborhood peaceful. SAN defeated legislation last year that would have provided an incentive to localities to increase the number of citations issued for violation of vehicle noise regulations. The defeats on this topic are quite impressive, but it seems never-ending.
The New Threat on the Horizon
We mentioned California's budget deficit, but that's not the only state in financial doo-doo. SEMA's Steve McDonald tells us what the org is seeing this year, unlike in previous years, is plenty of new legislation designed to create new fees for a range of cars-not just for your toy, but your daily driver, too. "There were proposals for taxing your vehicle depending on how many miles it was driven each year. There were taxes proposed that varied depending on vehicle weight, and gas guzzler taxes were being proposed to essentially charge you an additional fee if you purchased a vehicle that was below a certain mpg," McDonald says. Add in the new nationwide fuel-economy standards equating to less fuel consumption, and states are beginning to panic about how the heck they're going to raise money to fix roads and highways. And did we mention registration fees in general are on the rise? The historic class is particularly vulnerable right now, since usually these cars have had a one-time minimal fee; don't be surprised if those become annual.
How a Bill Doesn't Become a Law
SAN actively lobbies on 200 to 300 bills in a typical legislative session but closely tracks thousands of bills each year. Ashley Ailsworth, SEMA research manager of government affairs, monitors state issues. A day in her life involves looking for keywords in hundreds of bills, such as emissions, tires, restoration, exhaust, vehicle height, land use . . . the list is nearly endless. "In the exhaust alert, for example, one of the words I think is important to monitor is noise, so anything that has the word noise in it, I'll read. That's not what gets put into a bill very often in any other situation." Ailsworth passes along any relevant bills to Steve McDonald, who then decides what action to take on the bill, with the most pressing of the bills resulting in Action Alerts to SAN members.
SAN also utilizes the relationships it has developed with the lawmakers in the Congressional Automotive Performance and Motorsports Caucus and State Automotive Enthusiast Leadership Caucus. "The State Caucus is a bipartisan group of state lawmakers whose common thread is a love for automobiles. To date, more than 450 state legislators from all 50 states have joined the group. The caucus serves to raise the motor vehicle hobby's profile in state legislatures across the country and in the eyes of the public. Many of these lawmakers seek to preserve and expand the hobby by improving existing motor vehicle statutes and regulations," McDonald says.
And bills can be reintroduced after they are defeated, be it in the next session, "or in the same session by substituting an existing bill with the same or similar language from the bill that was defeated," Ailsworth explains.
How to Join SAN
Sign up at SemaSAN.com or call 202/783-6007, ext. 39.