Sepic: Head of auto dealers' group looks for state delegation to back bailout bill
By Brian E. Clark
MADISON – Bill Sepic, the new head of the Wisconsin Auto and Truck Dealers Association, says he is hopeful that Congress and the White House can reach agreement this week on a partial bailout bill for the Big Three automakers.
Sepic, who has been on the job for less than a month, was in Washington D.C. on Monday to lobby members of the Wisconsin delegation and urge them to support the deal.
Sepic, whose last job was president of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce in Michigan, said Monday he believed Wisconsin's congressional delegation would support the deal and that he didn't know of any member planning to withhold support.
“We feel very good currently about the number of elected officials supporting or having indicated they would support this package,” he said.
He said he was pleased that the Bush administration was willing to compromise with Democrats in Congress to get at least $15 billion to General Motors and Chrysler, plus a line of credit for Ford if it needs it.
Sepic said he believed the 533,000 jobs lost in November may have prodded the two sides to reach a deal.
“I’d like to believe that was a wake-up call for those who were on the fence and pushed them to support such a loan package,” he said. “I believe it probably helped more than hurt our cause.”
Though the details have not been finalized, published reports say the emerging bailout plan would draw emergency aid from an existing loan program meant to help the automakers build fuel-efficient vehicles.
Sepic said the size of the aid package was not as much as the auto companies wanted, but he said it would serve as a “bridge” until 2009 when President-elect Barack Obama takes over.
He said auto executives will have to produce some results to get any additional federal money, but he said he hoped Obama and the new Congress will make additional money available.
And while some critics, including Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, have said General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner should be fired, Sepic said that would be the wrong move now.
“I understand the context in which that statement was made, but I personally would be ... challenged to see billions of dollars going to a manufacturer that all of the sudden was in the turmoil of changing over the top people at the same time,” he said.
“I think that’s the right idea, but there are negatives there and I don’t think you’d get the results you’re looking for,” he said.
Sepic said he thinks most elected officials from Michigan and other Midwestern states will back the bailout.
But he labeled statements by Southern senators and representatives saying that the Big Three should be allowed to fail as “parochial.” Many non-union foreign-owned plants are located in the South.
“Right now there are so many jobs attached to the domestic auto manufacturer,” he said. “There would be fallout no matter what you do. If you go ahead and let the Big Three file for bankruptcy, you are coming into a much riskier scenario that would cost an equal amount of money to the government.”
Sepic said the ripple effect of bankruptcy would be felt around the country.
“Charitable causes go to Main Street businesses for help and two of the biggest donors tend to be financial institutions and auto dealers,” he said, noting that donations to the United Way, Little League teams, scouting organizations and myriad other groups would be affected.
“This would reach every facet of a community,” he said.
Within the Wisconsin Auto and Truck Dealers Association -- whose members sell both foreign and domestic brands -- Sepic said nearly every dealer supports the aid package for the Big Three “for the betterment of the country.”
Sepic said he hopes the economy will rebound in 2009 so that auto and truck sales, which are down more than 35 percent nationally, will rebound.
He said state dealers would be hurt, however, if the Wisconsin Legislature taxes vehicles that are traded in -- as has been proposed by some as a way to help fill a $5.4 billion state budget hole.
And while most of the news surrounding the automotive industry has been negative, he said there are bright spots.
“Our cars are more fuel-efficient and emissions are lower today than they have ever been,” he said. “If you are in the market today, the deals are phenomenal. And much to people’s surprise, there is financing available, though you might be required to put some money down – like we did 10 years ago.”