Column: Special interests in Jefferson City threaten Tesla’s ability to operate

Tesla’s car sales model for Missouri should be backed by state legislators.
Tesla recently had to close all its stores in Missouri due to a lawsuit from the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association. courtesy of PXhere

Jon Niemuth is a freshman economics major at MU. He is an opinions columnist who writes about politics for The Maneater.

Normally when Americans think of lobbying, they imagine representatives of large multinationals bankrolling the campaigns of agreeable congressional candidates for favors down the line.

Such visible corruption unfortunately does have a place in Washington, but we shouldn’t forget that the practice is prevalent in state governments as well. Case in point: Tesla’s recent struggle in Missouri to sell its cars directly to consumers.

Tesla’s logic seems pretty clear. In its view, manufacturers have a right to use whatever business practices they consider best for customers. Studies have shown that, when dealerships are skipped over for direct-to-consumers sales, consumers save as much as 30 percent — in others words, Tesla’s argument holds weight.

And yet, organizations like the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association won’t have it. MADA represents Missouri’s dealerships and stands to lose profits if Tesla’s model gains steam. Last year, it sued Tesla, temporarily forcing it to close all stores in the state. The decision was eventually overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court, but the saga still shined a spotlight on MADA’s determination.

More recently, that determination has been exemplified by an intense lobbying effort in the Missouri Senate. MADA remains one of the most influential special interest groups in Jefferson City, having given over $146,000 in gifts to legislators and staff since 2004. With an annual salary of just $35,915, it seems, Missouri’s elected officials are all too comfortable with such donations.

In March, things came to a head when Missouri Sen. Dave Schatz introduced Senate Bill 872, which would give MADA the necessary standing to file another lawsuit. Schatz defended his action on the grounds that he is merely requesting legal oversight over the controversy, but seeing as he has a history of opposing anti-lobbying reform, it’s fair to question his motives.

Meanwhile, Tesla continues to rightly hammer MADA for promoting unfair and monopolistic practices. The company has previously faced similar challenges in other states, and has reason to be confident the courts will take its side again.

Nonetheless, the story here is still that the Missouri legislature, chosen by the people to govern in their interests, is torn between perpetuating an unnecessary and unjust system — by which few benefit at the expense of many — and allowing Missourians to purchase cheaper cars. With a more honorable and well-meaning government, it’s unlikely any of this would have happened. The greater tragedy, of course, is that so few residents are even aware of the issue in the first place.

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