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Friday, February 22, 2008

FLORIDA POLITICS AND DEALER FEES

Boy am I getting a fast-track political education! I reached the ripe old age of 67 remaining a political novice. Lots of friends and associates kid me about being so politically naive. It’s not that I don’t read a lot of newspapers and watch a lot of politics on the news. I haven’t missed a vote for a local, state, or national candidate since 1961 when I became 21. But voting was as far as I went for most of my adult life. I did start making political contributions when I became a director of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association (FADA) a few years back. I felt that as a director I had to set an example. I remember asking my fellow dealers why we were giving money to politicians whose political philosophies were anti-business and they answered “because he promised to help us”. How could I disagree with that logic? The car dealers contribute individually, to a national PAC (Political Action Committee), DEAC and to a state PAC, CAR PAC. FADA uses this money to contribute to the campaigns of those politicians who promise to help car dealers get their agenda enacted into laws in Tallahassee. The #1 agenda item in 2008 is SAVE OUR DEALER FEE. Monies raised from members’ dues and other fund raising methods pay the salaries of lobbyists who spend lots of time schmoozing, persuading, and influencing, by any legal means, the votes of Florida Senators and Representatives.

I guess you could call this period of time in my life, Politics 101. Now that I’ve taken a position against the FADA and begun advocating making the dealer fee illegal, I’m working on my advanced degree in Political Science. There’s no better teacher than experience and that is what I’m getting. I’ve been publically decrying the dealer fee for several years. I’ve told anybody who will listen that I think it’s wrong that Florida law allows and in some ways facilitates and legitimatizes car dealers in increasing the price (and his profit) on the price he quotes his customers in a manner that often goes undetected or assumed by the buyer to be an official fee.

I guess some of the folks who listened to what I had to say about the dealer fee called Ken Pruitt who is the President of the Florida Senate. Under the pressure of his constituents, he formed a committee to investigate the dealer’s fee. This was a bit awkward for Senator Pruitt because the FADA is a very big supporter of his. This was another lesson in my political education. No matter how much a politician accepts in contributions from an individual, company, or organization, the voice of his constituents will trump that influence. The Senate investigation was not a very good one. In fact, it relied heavily on the input of the FADA. The Senate committee did not talk to a single car buyer. Senator Jeff Atwater told me that he was quite disappointed with this obvious flaw in the methodology.

By the way, Senator Jeff Atwater has been “anointed” to be the next President of the Senate, replacing Ken Pruitt, if he wins re-election this year. The President of the Senate is arguably the most powerful politician in Tallahassee. Senator Atwater knows that he has his work cut out for him to win re-election. This is because we also elect the next President of the United States this November. Senator Atwater’s district is heavily Democratic but he’s a Republican. In presidential election years there is always a much larger voter turnout. Former Democratic state Senator Skipp Campbell is running for Jeff Atwater’s Senate seat. It’s going to be a very close race to see who gets elected, Jeff or Skipp. It might not take much to swing enough voters one way or the other. Virtually all registered voters buy cars and that means almost all of them pay a dealer fee if they buy their cars in Florida. I’ll just bet that if somebody let all of the voters in Jeff Atwater’s district know just what a rip off the dealer fee is, this might influence who they vote for in the next election. Jeff has appeared on my radio show, met with me in person, and talked to me often on the phone about this subject. He believes that the current law addressing the dealer’s fee needs to be changed. He strongly believes that there should be much better enforcement of the current law.

On the other hand, Skipp Campbell simply believes that the dealer fee should be made illegal…no ifs, ands, buts, or compromises. In a meeting with Skipp three weeks ago, he told me that, if elected, he would work hard to make the dealer fee illegal. This is in contrast to Jeff Atwater’s view that a compromise between the consumers and car dealers can be accomplished by modifying the existing law and improving its enforcement by the Attorney General’s Office. In my opinion this issue between the two candidates can be a great thing for the car-buyers of Florida.

We have another politician who has appeared on the scene, Senator Alex Diaz de Portilla from Miami. Senator Portilla is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, addressing issues like the dealer fee that affects consumers. Senator Portilla’s committee held a hearing to discuss the Senate Report on the Dealer Fee on Tuesday, February 19. I sent the chairman and all the other senators on his committee lots of information including my postings from this blog on the dealer fee and dozens of emails I have received from car-buyers who consider the dealer fee a “license to steal”. Chairman Portilla called me after the hearing and told me that he decided to table the dealer fee issue until the next committee meeting on Tuesday, March 4 at 1:15 PM. That is this coming Tuesday. He tabled the dealer fee issue because there were no consumers there to argue against it. But, he told me, the room was full of car dealers and their lobbyist. FADA had rallied the troops to defend their precious dealer fee. Senator Portilla saw no sense in hearing only one side of the debate and tabled it until this Tuesday. He has agreed to meet with me personally on Thursday or Friday, February 28 or 29.

I’m writing this column on Friday, February 22 and it won't be read in The Hometown News until a week later. It will be posted here on EarlStewartOnCars.com today. That gives me 11 days until the next Commerce Committee hearing to rally some car-buyers to sit alongside FADA’s car dealers and lobbyists. Only the loud, honest, voices of the voter’s of Florida can trump FADA. Will we be successful?

You can help me by calling and/or emailing Senator Portilla and the members of his committee:

First Name
Last Name
Dst
City
Local Phone
Email Address
Victor
Crist
12
Tampa
(850) 487-5068
crist.victor.web@flsenate.gov
Alex
Diaz de la Portilla
36
Miami
(850) 487-5109
portilla.alex.web@flsenate.gov
Rudy
Garcia
40
Hialeah
(850) 487-5106
garcia.rudy.web@flsenate.gov
Charlie
Justice
16
St. Petersburg
(850) 487-5075
justice.charlie.web@flsenate.gov
Evelyn J.
Lynn
7
Daytona Beach
(850) 487-5033
lynn.evelyn.web@flsenate.gov
Steve
Oelrich
14
Gainesville
(850) 487-5020
oelrich.steve.web@flsenate.gov
Jeremy
Ring
32
Margate
(850) 487-5094
ring.jeremy.web@flsenate.gov
Burt L.
Saunders (B)
37
Naples
(850) 487-5124
saunders.burt.web@flsenate.gov
Gary
Siplin
19
Orlando
(850) 487-5190
siplin.gary.web@flsenate.gov

Sunday, February 03, 2008

MY CONVERSATION WITH SENATOR ATWATER ON THE DEALER FEE

Followers of this column know that I’ve been trying for several weeks to discuss the dealer fee issue with Senator Jeff Atwater, the next President of the Florida Senate. I was successful and I met with the Senator for nearly two hours on Saturday, January 26. Not only that, but he agreed to call in to my radio show [Seaview AM 960, WSVU airing Saturday mornings between 9 and 10] this Saturday, February 9].

Regular readers please excuse a little recap to bring those up to date who aren’t aware of the dealer fee and the pending legislation. The dealer fee is a “license to steal”, made legal by a bad Florida law. A dealer fee goes by at least 22 different names, according to the State Senate Investigating Committee. Dealer fee, documentary fee, dealer prep fee, and administrative are just a few. The highest dealer fee I know of is $999 charged by a dealer in Coconut Creek (west of Ft. Lauderdale). The lowest I know of is $389 and the average is around $700. This “fee” is just dealer profit disguised to make people believe they are paying an official fee to state, local, or federal government. Lots of dealers omit this from their advertised price (which is illegal) and surprise those customers who happen to notice it in the paperwork when they take delivery. Most customers never notice the dealer fee at all. Those who advertise legally and do include the dealer fee in the price, generally advertise just one vehicle at that price. Unfortunately this specific car has always “just been sold” when you come in on the ad. But, they tell you, we have lots more just like it. The other cars might be just like it, but not the price. Now, the law allows the dealer to add the dealer fee to the price. Enough people have complained about this that Ken Pruitt, the current Senate President, formed a committee to investigate making the dealer fee illegal or capping it. This recommendation was sent to the legislature several months ago. You can read this report by clicking on http://www.earlstewart.com/.

In my meeting with Jeff Atwater I was quite surprised to learn that he knew virtually nothing about the dealer fee or the Senate Investigating Committee’s report. There are many, many issues that state senators must deal with and this is just one. Jeff Atwater has been spending a large amount of his time on insurance and property tax issues. I furnished him with lots of information including a copy of the Senate Investigating Committee’s report, copies of every auto classified ad in the PB Post on Saturday [with my annotations] , January 26, copies of dealer’s vehicle buyers’ orders disclosing their dealer fees, and copies of articles I had written on this subject for my Blog and Hometown News. With all modesty, I must say that I did a very good job of educating Jeff Atwater on why this dealer fee is so bad for Florida car buyers.

The Senator expressed surprise and disappointment with the lack of thoroughness of the Senate committee’s report. The committee worked hand in hand with the Florida Automobile Dealers Association (FADA) who is heavily lobbying the Florida legislature for the preservation of the dealer fee. I told Jeff Atwater that this was like “sending a rabbit after lettuce”. Furthermore, no one in the senate committee ever talked to a single consumer, a car buyer. How can a committee possible make an intelligent recommendation that will protect the rights of the consumer when they hear only the car dealer’s side of the story?

I showed Jeff Atwater quotes from the FADA magazine, Velocity, “Senator Atwater- to support his campaign for Senate because he has promised to help us again this year-goal is $50,000.” Dealers have already contributed $24,500. The FADA has listed the preservation of the Dealer Fee as their #1 agenda item…”The Senate’s threat to cap your dealership service fees could reduce your gross profit on each new and used vehicle”. And FADA is hiring new lobbyist. Quoting from Velocity, “HELP US HIRE A LOBBYING TEAM. The attack on your dealer service fee will require a TEAM of new lobbyists-those funds cannot come from our political action committee (CAR-PAC). Every dealer who charges a service fee should cut a healthy check payable to “FADA” for our legislative action fund. We will hire top-notch lobbyists with your contributions.”

It’s clear that the car dealers of Florida will fight tooth, nail, and wallet to preserve their Florida State “license to steal” aka the Dealer Fee. But the good news is that we have a huge opportunity to prevail with the help of Senator Jeff Atwater. What can you, the readers of this column and my Blog, do? Let Jeff Atwater know how you feel. Relate your experience with the dealer fee when you bought your last car. Most car buyers don’t even realize they paid a dealer fee but the chances are 99.9% that if you bought a car in Florida you paid one. You can email Jeff Atwater at Jeff@SenatorJeff.com and you can call him at 561 625-5102. If you email him, please cc me at earls@earlstewarttoyota.com. If you have a question you would like me to ask the Senator when he calls into my radio show this February 9 between 9:05 AM and 9:20 AM, please email it to earlstewart@seaviewam960.com or you can call me on my cell phone at 561 358-1474.