WASHINGTON—1999 was a slow year legislatively for tire dealers and retreaders, and 2000—a presidential election year—promises more of the same. "It is very hard to prognosticate" what will happen in Washington in 2000, said Roy E. Littlefield III, government relations director for the International Tire and Rubber Association. "There are no clear signals. In 1999, Congress spent its last several months in a stalemate over the budget."
That stalemate suited David E. Poisson, executive vice president of the Tire Association of North America, just fine. "Across the United States, our members have fared very well in this business climate, so we were just as happy there was nothing legislative to worry about," Mr. Poisson said.
At the same time, however, Congress lost some legislative opportunities. One such missed chance was the failure—once again—to advance meaningful Superfund reform. Proposals to limit the liability of small businesses fell more or less by the wayside, although an exemption was passed for recyclers of scrap rubber other than whole tires.
The Rubber Manufacturers Association will continue to work to get a liability break for whole-tire recyclers, said Ann Wilson, RMA vice president of government affairs.
On the other hand, retreaders were relieved that the proposal of the late Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., to pass a weight-distance tax for truckers did not advance in the Senate. This tax plan—which taxes trucks according to loads carried and distances traveled—also would have repealed the federal excise tax on new truck tires, severely eroding retreaders' traditional price advantage over new-tire manufacturers.
Sen. Chafee's death in October makes the weight-distance proposal's fate uncertain in 2000. Meanwhile, the Rubber Manufacturers Association—which used to favor the excise tax repeal—no longer does so because many of its tire-manufacturing members also have retreading interests, said RMA President Donald B. Shea.
"Rather than eliminate the tax, we seek to simplify its administration," Mr. Shea said. The association is preparing a simplification proposal that should be ready in the first quarter of 2000, he added.
There was one piece of legislation that passed to everyone's pleasure, and that was the bill to relieve businesses from liability over Year 2000 computer glitches. President Clinton signed the bill in July.
The Y2K bill, which was supported by all branches of the tire industry, creates a waiting period of up to 90 days before a Y2K-related lawsuit can be filed and limits punitive damages to $250,000 for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Congress also passed two other Y2K-related bills. One ensures that good-faith Y2K readiness disclosure statements can't be used as evidence in lawsuits; the other expedites Small Business Administration loans to small companies trying to become Y2K-compliant.
In 2000, besides being distracted by the elections, Mr. Poisson said, Congress will be "extremely reluctant" to give President Clinton a last hurrah in the form of advocating and passing any of his pet legislative projects.
By default, this means that if the Clinton administration wants to extend its legacy in its final year, it will have to do so in the regulatory arena. In November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced its major regulatory push in 2000—to the chagrin of virtually every business owner in the tire industry.
This is the proposed ergonomics standard, through which OSHA plans to protect U.S. workers from occupational repetitive-stress injuries. While OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress boasted that the proposal is the most flexible his agency has ever issued, industry said it is just more "one-size-fits-all" rulemaking, which will be virtually impossible to comply with.
"That is such a challenge to (the retreading) industry," Mr. Littlefield said. "When you look at what our members do—you're lifting all the time, you're moving heavy objects all the time—we'd be ripe for the picking if they enforce this."
Mr. Poisson found the proposal both confusing and insulting to employers. "No one really understands what the ultimate impact of this rule will be, and there's been no sufficient consideration of our members' historic record on that issue or the equipment they use today," he said.
OSHA, anxious to issue the final rule by the end of 2000, wants all written comments by Feb. 1. The RMA will fight to get that comment period extended, although Mr. Jeffress has said he will allow no extensions, Ms. Wilson said.
"We will try to get Jeffress and others to understand how ambitious this comment period is and how difficult it will be to answer them fully within the deadline they've set," she said.
Public hearings on the ergonomics proposal are set for March and April across the U.S., and the RMA and many of its members will want to testify, Ms. Wilson said.
Tire manufacturers are petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for rulemaking to replace current federal safety standards for passenger tires with Global Tire Standard 2000, which harmonizes U.S. and European passenger tire standards. The industry also is close to agreement on similar standards for truck/ bus and motorcycle tires, Mr. Shea said.
While major legislation of any sort seems unlikely in 2000, many commentators hoped Congress will pass at least a small, targeted tax-reform bill, including such items as an extension of the research and development tax credit, a lower tax rate for long-term capital gains and reform of the estate tax.
"A lot of groundwork can be laid for significant change in the tax laws," Mr. Poisson said.
Reforming the estate tax is crucial for every independent repair shop owner, said Robert L. Redding, Washington representative for the Automotive Service Association.
"Transferring property from one generation to another is awful, thanks to the current tax laws," Mr. Redding said. "Repair shop owners aren't wealthy by any means, but they easily have $1 million invested in land, buildings and equipment. We're talking about some very intensive equipment purchases...."
1999 was "a modestly to moderately successful year" legislatively for the ASA, and 2000 promises to be the same, Mr. Redding said.
"Congress is pro-small-business and should continue that way," he said. "All the major candidates for president are speaking in terms of being pro-small-business."
Nevertheless, the two biggest issues for repair shop owners—information availability for repairing newer-model vehicles and promoting state vehicle inspection/maintenance programs—are issues in which they have yet to receive satisfaction from the federal government, Mr. Redding said.
"In the 1990 Clean Air Amendments, then-Senator Gore included language promising information availability on repairing auto emissions control systems to independent repair shops," he said. "Nine years later, Vice President Gore has acted extremely slowly in assuring those protections."
To ensure information availability, the ASA is taking its case to the states and will intensify its efforts in 2000, Mr. Redding said. North Carolina enacted an information availability law in 1999. a similar bill passed by the Arizona House of Representatives died on the Senate floor, but that bill will be back in 2000, he said.
As for auto I/M programs, the ASA worked overtime just to persuade NHTSA to send a letter to the Missouri legislature urging it not to repeal its I/M law, Mr. Redding said. But other states are considering similar moves, and the agency has not acted.
"They need to take some responsibility, and they have taken none," he said. "It's pathetic that less than half the states have a viable I/M program—and some of those are thinking about scrapping it." Mr. Redding was particularly critical of former NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez, who resigned recently.
While all commenters were outspoken about the issues that interested them, they were mum regarding the biggest political question of 2000: Who will win the presidential election?
"The only things you can safely predict," Mr. Shea said, "are that there will be a presidential election, that each party will nominate a candidate and that someone will win."