Wednesday, April 20, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy

Ride-hailing meets truth-hailing at Prop 1 presser

City Council members may have been overly optimistic that a 9-year-old’s karaoke machine could carry their comments to reporters. Nonetheless, they pushed on.

Armed both with a “singing machine” borrowed from Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo’s daughter and with printed versions of the two currently competing ride-hailing ordinances, five Council members gathered outside City Hall on Tuesday. They aimed to correct what they say are misleading statements made by Ridesharing Works for Austin, the Uber- and Lyft-funded political action committee responsible for getting Proposition 1 – which relaxes Austin’s regulations for ride-hailing companies – on the May 7 ballot.

“In order to be really, really clear, I’m going to read to you some of the statements they have made and repeat again what is false about them,” Council Member Ann Kitchen yelled into the feeble microphone.

Both sides of the Prop 1 debate have begun ramping up their campaigns before early voting begins April 25. Voters will either accept or deny Prop 1. The companies have threatened to leave Austin should the proposition fail.

In a campaign with clear financial limits relative to those of Ridesharing Works (it has spent more than $2 million, while the Prop 1 opposition has spent roughly $15,000), the cry of miseducation has become popular. So Kitchen – along with Tovo and Council members Ora Houston, Pio Renteria and Delia Garza – set out to fact-check some of Ridesharing Works’ claims Tuesday, and the Austin Monitor joined her.

Listen below to the PAC’s take on the major points of contention in the Prop 1 debate, followed by Kitchen’s retorts. Then, read on for more context.

Q. Who will run background checks?

A. Regardless of whether one votes for or against Prop 1, the city will have to approve whoever is running a background check on a driver of a ride-hailing company. The biggest difference between the city’s current regulations and those proposed by Prop 1 lies in what these background checks will entail.

A vote “yes” is a vote for Uber and Lyft’s current approach to background checks, which are run through city-approved third parties. A vote “no” is a vote for mandatory fingerprint-based background checks run either by the city or by a city-approved third party.

Q. Who will pay for background checks?

A. When it comes to the question of cost, there is still a lot to be determined. But there is nothing set in stone that says the city would pay for the background checks – or that taxpayers would be on the hook for the bill.

A vote “yes” for Prop 1 means that Uber and Lyft go on doing their own background checks – and paying for them. A “no” vote enables the city to pay for fingerprinting drivers. And if the city does pay for the fingerprinting, it could do so with a “compliant driver education” fund financed by ride-hailing companies through a fee totaling 1 percent of their annual local revenue. Under the current rules as passed by Council, this money would be used to help drivers become “compliant” – in the city’s eyes, this could mean fingerprinting.

But as Ridesharing Works spokesman Travis Considine has pointed out, there is still little known about how paying for these background checks would work.

“The bottom line is City Council has no idea how much the new process will cost, no procedural model in place with which to base an estimate, nor any idea how much revenue their proposed fee structure will actually generate,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor.

Q. Either way I vote, background checks will still happen – right?

A. A vote “yes” and a vote “no” are both votes in favor of background checks. The difference is whether these checks should be run using a driver’s name and Social Security number – the information Uber and Lyft use to run background checks – or fingerprints.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo from our recent TNC debate by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. of KUT News.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

May 2016 election

Transportation Network Companies: Companies that provide transportation services through applications such as Uber or Lyft.

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