A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
One of the most interesting political stories in Maine that developed over the last week is not classically political at all — a right-to-repair referendum being proposed by advocates of independent repair shops.
It is a response to rapid changes in the automotive industry toward proprietary diagnostic and repair technologies in new vehicles that wirelessly transmit information to manufacturers. Those programs make it difficult or impossible for owners to fix issues themselves or take vehicles to local repair shops. Those shops, in turn, are worried about being progressively shut out of the market
The proposed law is a straightforward one: Any manufacturer that sells a vehicle in Maine would have to make that information available to vehicle owners and independent repair shops.
But the various issues at play are not straightforward. A similar Massachusetts law is lingering unimplemented after a lawsuit brought by automakers that alleges states are not allowed to set laws like this and solutions must come at the federal level. So any law here will face hurdles.
It is virtually assured to be politically popular. In Massachusetts, voters approved right-to-repair legislation with a whopping 75 percent of votes in the 2020 election. It won a majority in nearly every single city and town after $43 million in spending made it the most expensive referendum in state history. (Our most expensive one was on the Central Maine Power Co. corridor, which had something to do with Massachusetts.)
While Massachusetts’ population is five times bigger than ours, that campaign gives us a roadmap for what a Maine race would look like. Spending was more or less equally divided between the yes and no sides, with trade groups and Missouri-based O’Reilly Auto Parts spending millions for the question and General Motors, Toyota and Ford spending millions against it.
Caught in the middle will be Maine auto dealers that benefit from their relationships with manufacturers but would not want to be identified closely with the losing side of a question that looks like a good bet for passage. Proponents need to get their signatures first, but this could amount to a fascinating campaign.