Tesla enthusiasts are urging Gov. John Bel Edwards to veto legislation that the automaker says will threaten future sales of the popular vehicles in Louisiana.
Edwards, a Democrat, has not made a decision on whether he will sign or veto Senate Bill 107, which quietly won overwhelming approval in the state House and Senate last month. The governor was expected to meet with Tesla executives Friday afternoon and has had conversations with officials from the auto industry over the last couple of weeks, his spokesman Richard Carbo said.
"He’ll make a determination soon," Carbo said.
SB107 originally began as a measure to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to purchase armored vehicles. But a House amendment on broader car sales has upset fans of the trendy electric car brand, which is sold through a direct-to-customer model, rather than the franchise dealership relationships that other auto manufacturers use.
"Special interests are trying to stop Tesla from growing in Louisiana," a petition aimed at Edwards reads. "If the governor signs SB107 into law, consumers in Louisiana will be forced to take their business to other states, losing us millions in potential revenue. We should be welcoming electric vehicle makers like Tesla to the state, which will support sustainable energy, modernize our economy, and create local jobs."
The pushback from Tesla devotees has lit up online message boards and spread across social media and email-writing campaigns. They believe that anti-Tesla legislation passed under the radar, linked to a law enforcement safety bill in a state that has seen several high profile officer deaths and injuries.
Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, said his amendment was added at the request of the Louisiana Auto Dealers Association and meant only to tighten the existing law.
"It just clarifying the language in existing law that any manufacturer, not specific to Tesla, has to have a dealership to sell cars," Magee said. "I know everybody would like to have a business where you don't have to worry about licensing and those things, but there's a whole mess of reasons why you have them."
Will Green, president of the Louisiana Automobile Dealers Association, said he also believes that existing law already prohibits Tesla from side-stepping dealers.
"If they want to partner with a local dealer, Tesla is still more than welcome to do that," Green said. "(SB107) doesn't do anything different than the law on the books."
The bill went through two committees with no testimony against it. It passed the House and Senate unanimously.
Tesla leaders, however, now believe that it could threaten any future plans that they have to sell cars in Louisiana because it strips language that allows some limited exemptions to the ban on manufacturer-to-consumer sales for a two year period, which can be extended in some cases.
“Tesla wants to invest tens of millions of dollars in Louisiana, add hundreds of jobs, and make significant contributions to local and state tax revenue," a company spokeswoman said via email. "All we’re asking is for the right to do business here, however, special interests like auto dealerships and traditional auto manufacturers who are afraid of competition are trying to amend current law and ban Tesla’s operations against the will of consumers. We hope the Governor will side with economic growth and competition over special interests and veto this bill (SB107) so that we can invest in Louisiana and provide good jobs, boost the local economy and help reduce carbon emissions.”
Tesla plans to open a service center in New Orleans, and the company has embarked on an effort to open more Apple store-like showrooms across the country.
But Green said that local dealers, who franchise from automakers like Ford and Chevrolet to sell cars across the state, are important to communities. They build show rooms, service stations and meet requirements for square footage that they must operate. They often sign on as sponsors to local events and causes.
"There is significant investment you have to make in the state," he said. "It works for the local communities."
He said that he thinks dealerships also help serve as consumer advocates: A dealership that purchases many cars and can partner with other dealerships has a stronger voice than one consumer.
"It's a win-win for everybody," he said.
Sen. Bodi White, a Central Republican who sponsored the original bill dealing with law enforcement vehicles, said he didn't expect the House amendment to court controversy.
"I didn't hear anything about it until the bill was already concurred and gone," he said. "The amendment, as far as I knew, was cleanup language."
He said that he supports the bill and the intent of the dealers and doesn't expect the governor will veto it.
"Tesla can come in and get a license if they want to sell cars," White said.