For a quarter-century, business and industry have fought trial lawyers and consumer advocates over obtaining relief from the crazy quilt of 50 different state regulations on product liability, punitive damages and class-action lawsuits.
The RMA is a member of the American Tort Reform Association, which fights for tort reform and identifies ``judicial hellholes''-courts that favor plaintiffs heavily in product liability cases.
The 109th Congress, according to Mr. Shea, offers industry just about its best opportunity ever to enact tort reform legislation. Even so, he warned, this is no time to be complacent.
``Just because we have 55 Republican senators doesn't mean we have 55 votes,'' he said. ``It hasn't meant that in the past.''
At the same time, the 109th Congress could be crucial, because there is no guarantee the 110th will be as friendly to tort reform, Mr. Shea said. ``Year six of a two-term presidency traditionally is the year the party in power loses seats in Congress. Traditionally it's not a good year for the incumbent.''
The omnibus spending bill that passed Congress last fall contained a provision simplifying the method of computing federal excise taxes on truck tires.
Since 1982, new truck tires have been taxed by weight, on a graduated scale, above the first 40 pounds. As of Jan. 1, however, they will be taxed on load capacity-9.45 cents for every 10 pounds above 3,500 pounds. For bias-ply and ``super single'' tires, the tax rate is halved, to 4.725 cents.
Michelin North America Inc. was behind the truck tire tax provision, and tire manufacturers in general are pleased with it. ``We supported the total elimination of the federal excise tax, but practically the chances of achieving that were virtually nil, so we supported simplification,'' Mr. Shea said.
``Calculating the excise tax based on load-carrying capacity is extremely easy,'' added John Falardeau, RMA director of government affairs. ``The administrative costs alone will be greatly reduced.''
Tire dealers, however, are nervous about the ramifications of the new tax method, particularly since the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has yet to issue any sort of interpretation regarding what it requires from dealers under the new law.
``We're getting five or six calls a day on this,'' Mr. Littlefield said Dec. 8. Tire dealers probably will be forced to differentiate between tires received before and after Jan. 1 for purposes of computing the tax, and their computer systems are not set up to monitor their inventories that way, he said.
This could mean major headaches for dealers, particularly in connection with big orders that come in after the effective date, Mr. Littlefield added. ``Say you carry a tire that got a reduction in tax, and someone wants to buy 500 of those tires,'' he said. ``What are you going to do?''
The RMA has asked the IRS for interpretation on inventory and other FET-related issues but has yet to hear anything back, according to Mr. Falardeau. ``The FET simplification was part of a much larger bill, and this issue isn't exactly on the IRS's front burner,'' he said. ``To put it mildly, they're swamped.''
Nevertheless, Mr. Falardeau added, there is little to fear from the IRS at this point. ``They won't be going out to dealers and distributors before the interpretation is out.''
Among other tax issues, Mr. Littlefield and Ms. MacDicken said they will continue to work toward permanent repeal of the estate tax, while Mr. Redding said the ASA looks forward to the ``aggressive tax reform'' that President Bush has promised.
Right to Repair Act
There may be no more divisive issue in the tire and auto repair industry this year than the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act, which was introduced in the 108th Congress and likely will be reintroduced in the 109th.
Essentially, the ASA insists the legislation is unnecessary, thanks to the agreement it signed with most major auto makers in September 2002 for them to make the same repair and diagnostic information available to independent repair shops that they do to their own dealers.
TIA and other aftermarket groups that were not party to the agreement insist that the agreement is not entirely working, and that the auto industry is totally free to abrogate it whenever it pleases. Only a law that enforces strict penalties against auto makers for reneging on their promise to provide repair information, they insist, can protect the rights of independent repair shops and auto repair customers.
A major part of TIA's concern is that with the mandate for tire pressure monitoring systems, auto makers may not give tire dealers the information they need to service and repair those systems. The RMA backs TIA on this, insisting that tire dealerships must remain the main outlets for tire purchases and that a lack of TPMS repair information would jeopardize this.
The pro-legislation forces were dealt a blow in the autumn of 2004 when the Federal Trade Commission wrote the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saying that acting as the enforcement body for the Right to Repair Act would tax its resources to the limit. This in turn gave House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, some concerns about the future of the legislation, according to TIA.
Currently the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association is talking to FTC officials ``to work out legislation the agency can support,'' Ms. MacDicken said.
Mr. Redding, however, insisted that legislation would do more harm than good to the aftermarket. ``Right now, we have the option of getting information directly from auto makers,'' he said. ``If we go the government route, we'll lose that right.''
Among other issues, the RMA remains concerned about Customs Service treatment of tire-grade steel wire rod. Not enough of this product is made in the U.S., Mr. Shea said, to supply the domestic tire industry.
``We are striving to make sure we have an adequate supply,'' he said. ``We cannot afford to have an inadequate supply or a product that doesn't meet our specifications.''
TIA, meanwhile, is watching a move within the Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead wheel weights.
``We don't have a position on this issue, but the EPA didn't have as much data on lead wheel weights as they thought,'' Mr. Littlefield said. ``So they're going out to dealers to find out the scrappage and recycling rates on wheel weights, and whether they go back to the manufacturers.''
TIA has met with the RMA as well as with EPA officials on this issue, he said. ``It was hard to get a handle on the situation, because there are so many different sizes of wheel weights. One small dealer had 17 different types of wheel weights in stock, with 10 sizes for each type.''
Early research, however, shows that the rate of lead wheel weight recycling is very high, Mr. Littlefield added. ``It's important to know that if they institute a rulemaking, that there's sound science behind it,'' he said.
* * *
* Tire pressure monitoring systems
* Early warning data
* Tire aging
* Tort reform
* Health care
* Right to Repair Act
* Possible lead wheel weight ban