State Sen. Harry Brown had some advice earlier this year for a lawmaker who wanted to end annual vehicle safety inspections: Run your idea past some car dealers and get back to me.
Brown knew what the response would be.
Car dealers, repair shop owners and other auto-related businesses are among the fiercest opponents of curtailing North Carolina's vehicle inspections program.
The groups have repeatedly helped quash attempts to overhaul or end it.
Brown owns two Jacksonville car dealerships and is part-owner of another in Mitchell County. Since 2008, his businesses received about $177,000 from safety inspection fees.
As expected, the lawmaker, Stan Bingham, a Davidson County Republican, got a fast education on the politics of inspections. Bingham initially hoped legislators would support his bill but, "I saw real quick that was out of the question."
Brown, the Senate majority leader, had the power to decide if Bingham's bill would advance or die.
It was dismissed without a vote.
Three years ago, a state report called North Carolina's inspections ineffective, poorly managed and costly to motorists.
The N.C. Program Evaluation Division recommended officials lift the requirement for safety inspections - or exempt cars three years old or newer from safety and emission inspections, which would save drivers millions of dollars.
But the auto industry, among the state's top campaign donors, has successfully lobbied to keep the program despite little conclusive evidence it prevents traffic crashes.
The state continues to require annual vehicle inspections partly because "a lot of people have an economic self-interest," said John Turcotte, director of the division that conducted the critical state report.
Motorists spent $106 million on safety inspection fees last year, according to the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles.
The figure does not account for money that motorists also pay for repairs and auto parts when their vehicles fail inspections.
Industry lobbyists make no apologies.
When Bingham proposed ending the program earlier this year, members of the Independent Garage Owners of North Carolina and other trade associations launched a lobbying campaign aimed at lawmakers.
Groups such as the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, Automotive Service Association and Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association wrote letters against the proposal.
"They were telling them it was a safety issue, but the other issue was that it was going to destroy their business," said Bob Pulverenti, executive director of the Independent Garage Owners group. "It could have been devastating to the industry."
Brown received about $50,000 in campaign donations from the auto industry in 2010, far more than any other candidate for state office, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said his business interests did not influence his opposition to eliminating safety inspections. He said his experience as a car dealer gives him insight into why the inspections are necessary.
"It's important vehicles on the road are safe," Brown said.
North Carolina has kept its program intact even as other states have eliminated safety inspections or relaxed rules in recent years.
South Carolina legislators dumped safety inspections in 1995 after hearing complaints that the cost of doing an inspection was more than the $2.50 the garages received from the $3 fee.
The state collected the other 50 cents from each inspection.
"Businesses said, 'This isn't worth our time,' " said Pete Poore, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Transportation. "People just got tired of having to have their cars inspected."
In North Carolina, former state Rep. James Carpenter, R-Macon, proposed eliminating the requirement in 1999. He said garage owners, auto dealers and others advocated inspections because they profit from them.
Carpenter and others have argued the program does little to improve highway safety.
Most research shows the rate of fatal wrecks in which mechanical failure was a contributing factor varies little between states with safety inspection programs and those without them.
Former state Sen. Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat, proposed eliminating safety inspections in 2009, but he said the bill died in committee when lawmakers cut off debate.
"I was sort of dumbstruck" when the bill died, Albertson said.
"Nobody wanted to look at the evidence."
Public safety advocates such as AAA Carolinas and the N.C. Highway Patrol vigorously defend vehicle safety inspections. They say without the annual check, roads would become more dangerous.
But political donations and lobbying from the influential N.C. Automobile Dealers Association and other auto-related groups have helped entrench the program, said Jane Pinsky, head of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
Businesses, individuals and others connected to the automotive business donated more than $400,000 last year to candidates for state office in North Carolina, making it one of the top 15 industries for political contributions, the National Institute on Money in State Politics reports.
"They are people with good political connections," Pinsky said.
Auto dealers often target their campaign donations toward favored politicians, including Brown, Pinsky said.
State Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, said lawmakers remain convinced inspections make vehicles safer.
Asked about the 2008 state study that determined safety inspections were ineffective, Clodfelter said the issue "is not as black and white" as the report portrayed.
Inspections "catch things that could be a danger," Clodfelter said.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said ending auto safety inspections remains a controversial idea.
"I feel safer knowing inspections are required," Berger said. "Do I have 100 percent confidence inspections catch all problems? No. It's an overall benefit."
Inspection supporters argue motorists keep their cars longer in an economic downturn. Older cars are more likely to need repairs to remain safe, they said.
"It's just good public policy," said Bob Glasser, president of the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association.
Inspections also provide jobs, officials said.
Garages that perform a high volume of inspections will typically hire four to five employees, making $12 to $15 an hour, said Pulverenti, head of the Independent Garage Owners of North Carolina.
Critics say lawmakers are reluctant to eliminate vehicle inspections because they generate revenue for the government.
North Carolina collected more than $30 million from vehicle safety and emissions inspection fees last year.
Proposed bill dies
Bingham, the Davidson County Republican, proposed ending safety inspections last spring, even though he is part-owner of Davidson Tire & Automotive in Denton, which performs inspections.
Bingham said after his idea was rebuffed, he tried to compromise, recommending lawmakers exempt newer cars. Still, he said, he found little interest.
Sen. Harry Brown met with Bingham to discuss the bill because Brown, in his fourth term, was chairman of the commerce committee assigned to study the proposal.
Records show a Volkswagen/Subaru dealership owned by Brown has performed at least 4,235 safety inspections from January 2008 through early this year.
Another dealership he owns nearby, National DodgeChrysler Jeep, performed 8,279 safety inspections during the same time.
In Mitchell County, Brown is part-owner of Spruce Pine Chevrolet, which performed 1,425 inspections.
More than 1,000 of the state's roughly 5,800 inspection garages are operated by auto dealerships, according to the DMV.
Brown is a former chairman of the N.C. Automobile Dealers Association, which supports the auto inspection program.
The group invited him to speak at its convention this year. Brown said he was not lobbied by the Automobile Dealers Association to reject the bill.
But asked about his meeting with Bingham, Brown said he asked the senator to do "a little more homework" by speaking with car dealers. After Bingham spoke with them, he said Bingham "realized it's not as cut and dry" as he thought.
"He got a better picture," Brown said.
Brown said he killed the bill before the committee debated its merit because he believed Bingham was no longer adamant about discussing it.
"Most people realize safety inspections are important," Brown said.
Conflict of interest?
But Bingham said he stillbelieves safety inspections should be repealed and plans to introduce a new bill.
Bingham said Brown told him the committee would not discuss the legislation because, with at least 20 other bills to consider, there was no time.
Open government advocates said Brown should have recused himself from deliberations.
They said his ownership of car dealerships could represent a conflict of interest.
"It makes you wonder whether the bill was set aside because of its merits," said Bob Hall, executive director ofDemocracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. "It does raise ethical issues."
Researcher Maria David contributed to this report
Clasen-Kelly: 704 358-5027
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