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Uber and Lyft ride hail into the Legislature - again
By Ben Wear - American-Statesman Staff. 3/19/17

cramped Capitol hearing room last week, I experienced a feeling of deja phooey.

As I listened (twice!) to debate over a proposed ride-hailing law - and fingerprints, drunken driving, sexual assault, apps, innovation, local control, Uber and Lyft - the whole thing had a dispiriting familiarity. The cast of characters was recognizable too.

There were Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen and Mayor Steve Adler for the (city) defense; the preternaturally composed Lyft executive April Mims; folks from Houston city government; law enforcement trying to thread the needle between endorsing fingerprinting but not chasing off the biggest ride-hailing companies; Mothers Against Drunk Driving standing up for ride-hailing's purportedly magical effect on drinking and driving; state Sen. Charles Schwertner and state Rep. Chris Paddie speaking for Uber.

Oops. I mean, speaking for the concept of reasonable and consistent statewide regulation of a highly portable service, which allows users to summon a driver-for-hire using a smartphone app. Pay no attention to those 40 Uber and Lyft lobbyists over there behind the curtain. Or, in this case, the back of the hearing room.

One way or the other, I've been listening to all this for three years and, through me and other reporters, so have you. It's hard not to think: Hey, just decide it, already.

In case you missed it, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee on Tuesday had hearings on Senate Bill 176 from Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican, Senate Bill 361 from state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, and Senate Bill 113 by state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. Then, on Thursday, the House Transportation Committee heard testimony on House Bill 100 by Paddie, R-Marshall. There are notable differences among the bills, but what they all have in common is that cities would be banned from regulating ride-hailing services and the state would be in charge instead.

You'll notice the "R" attached to all those names. Somehow ride-hailing services, which began in deep blue San Francisco and was birthed in Austin by the very liberal former Council Member Chris Riley, have now become a partisan issue with Democrats mostly on the "no" side.

Both committees left the bills pending. But there's a very good chance that both of them will eventually send bills on to the floors of their respective chambers. And if it stays partisan, well, the Republicans control both chambers and the governor's office. So if you're part of the 56 percent of Austin voters who in May stood by Austin's ordinance and rejected an alternative from Uber and Lyft, you might have to adjust your expectations.

As I said, the legislation's supporters pulled out the old drunken driving saw. What we were told back in 2014, when Uber and Lyft were first here and operating in defiance of city officials, opposing them was akin to sanctioning death behind the wheel. The early statistics on driving while intoxicated in Austin after the companies came to town in June 2014 - the council legalized them that October with an ordinance they liked - showed that arrests had fallen a bit.

But during that first year, the council began to hear from advocates for battered women that they had gotten about 10 complaints of assaults on young women by Uber or Lyft drivers. Similar reports were coming in from around the country as well. So in the fall of 2015, the council opened the issue back up. In December 2015, after several long hearings and debates, they passed a bill requiring fingerprinting of drivers for criminal background checks.

You know what happened next: Uber and Lyft petitioned to force an election on an alternative ordinance without fingerprinting, letting the companies do the name-based background checks they prefer. They lost. They left. Other ride-hailing companies came in, agreeing to abide by the fingerprinting requirement.

[ read the rest of the story here ]
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