Dealers in Mississippi are trying to block a Native American tribe from operating a dealership unless it agrees to pay the same taxes as other dealers.
As a sovereign nation, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians can avoid various state, local and federal taxes. The dispute has national implications, dealers say, because tribes could buy dealerships in many states, just as they have acquired gambling casinos.
"We have an obligation to all auto dealers in the United States to stop this before it gets into Wisconsin, Illinois, New Mexico and any other state where there are Indian reservations which are financially capable of doing this,'' said Bert Allen, owner of Bert Allen Pontiac-GMC in Gulfport, Miss.
On May 15, the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission is expected either to rescind the Choctaw's license to operate Frontier Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, allow it to stand or impose conditions on the tribe, said Bryant Rogers, a lawyer representing the Choctaws.
The band was granted the license in February for the dealership in Carthage, Miss. Last week, the Mississippi Motor Vehicle Commission held a hearing on the license after receiving a complaint signed by 160 of the 200 dealers in the Mississippi Automobile Dealers Association.
Ford Motor has not granted the Choctaw tribe Ford, Lincoln and Mercury franchises but has begun the franchise process and expects to do so, said Ford spokesman Ken Zino.
"New-car dealers do not object to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians being in the new-car business in our state,'' said Bill Lehman, president of the Mississippi Automobile Dealers Association.
"The entire issue is about a level playing field.
"The Choctaw Indians are a sovereign nation. They have been granted privileges by the federal government that do not exist and are not available to other dealers in the state.''