A lobbying battle: Speaker vs. Speaker

It wasn’t exactly the campy skullduggery of Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy. In the final frame, nobody went Kaboom! But another chapter was written Wednesday in a quietly epic lobbying battle. Call it Speaker vs. Speaker.

Richard J. Balducci and James A. Amann are Democrats who served in the Connecticut General Assembly, reaching the top rung of leadership by winning multiple terms as speaker of the House. Both are now lobbyists.

Over three years, the two former speakers have been on opposite sides of “An Act Concerning Auto Glass Work,” one of the myriad bills that go unnoticed by the public, but subtly rewrite the rules of commerce.

Balducci prevailed in 2011 and 2012, but not this year. The Senate voted 34-2 Wednesday to pass a bill sought by Amann to force modest changes in how the auto glass market works in Connecticut.

At issue was what smaller auto glass companies say is a market advantage enjoyed by the nation’s largest auto glass company, Safelite: It handles glass claims as third-party administrators for some major insurers.

What that means is that if you call the toll free number on your insurance card to file a claim for a cracked windshield, you’ll end up talking to a Safelite employee.

“We had a script from Safelite that was taped,” said Amann, who represents independent auto glass dealers like Andre Santamaria, who watched the Senate debate. “It was so blatant what they were doing. They were steering to their own company.”

Balducci said Safelite offers consumers a good service: With one call, they can make a claim and have an administrator handle the insurance and schedule the repair. If a customer wants a company other than Safelite, it is arranged.

In fact, in the script cited by Amann, the Safelite employee pitched her company, then said, “You are not obligated at all to use them, but they will come right out to your home or even your business at no cost to you.”

Rep. Robert W. Megna, D-New Haven, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee, said the bill sent Wednesday to the desk of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy requires a relatively small change.

Third-party claims administrators affiliated with a glass company would have to offer the name of another glass installer in addition to their own company. They also would have inform the consumer they have a choice.

Balducci said the issue over the years eventually became framed as one of small, local shops trying to survive against a national giant. It was a politically attractive narrative.

“Small businesses are important to us,” Megna said. “It did kind of come out as a small business bill.”

The insurance industry opposed the measure, as did the state Insurance Department, which called it unnecessary.

But Santamaria and other shop owners told legislators in meetings arranged by Amann that it was an important step towards a level playing field in an industry that had been tilting toward national companies.

“They worked it really well, the small shops,” Megna said. “They were very well organized. It’s one of those things where it’s around a couple of years.”

The bill didn’t come to a vote in either chamber in 2011, but it was passed by the House last year on a lopsided vote of 113 to 25.

Senate leaders did not bring out the bill until the last day of the session, when anyone can kill a bill simply by talking at length. When it was clear debate would not end in time, the bill was pulled.

This year, the House voted 107 to 38 for passage on May 7.

The Senate followed Wednesday, 34 to 2.

 Amann watched from the Senate gallery with one of his clients, Andre Santamaria, who was jubilant. Amann, who said he learned much about being a legislator and a lobbyist from Balducci, didn’t gloat.

“There are days you win, there are days you lose. It’s 2 to 1, he’s still winning,” Amann said, noting the three-season win-loss record. “Who knows what’s going to happen next year. We won this round.”

Balducci called the lobbying battle amicable. But he smiled and declined comment when asked if there be another chapter of Speaker vs. Speaker in 2014.