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Uber and Lyft swing by the Legislature

Thursday, June 9, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Uber and Lyft were back in Austin on Wednesday afternoon for a rambling hearing at the State Capitol that also featured several upstart competitors, representatives from friendly and not-so-friendly cities and at least one NFL Hall of Famer.

The State House of Representatives Business and Industry Committee met at 10 a.m. Wednesday and officially kicked off a legislative process that could ultimately wipe from existence Austin’s controversial ordinance that regulates transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber, Lyft and now Get Me, Fare, Fasten, Wingz, Ride Austin and more.

Lyft’s Rena Davis and Uber’s Sarfraz Maredia called on lawmakers to adopt statewide regulations that are amenable to the two companies’ business model. In May, both Uber and Lyft withdrew from Austin after voters overwhelmingly refused to adopt a new ordinance that would have overturned rules approved by City Council last December.

Most contentious within the city’s law is the requirement for TNC drivers to pass fingerprint background checks.

Maredia told the lawmakers that 31 other states have adopted regulations that don’t require that level of scrutiny, which he claimed is redundant to Uber’s own mandatory background checks.

State Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress) suggested Maredia’s approach might not be effective given Texas’ sense of exceptionalism. “Sometimes we hold ourselves to higher standards,” he said.

Committee Chairperson Rep. René Oliveira (D-Brownsville) asked both companies if they could provide data that proved that passengers are safer going with Uber or Lyft than they are with conventional taxis. Both Maredia and Davis told him they could not.

“I don’t understand why you all can’t produce any statistical evidence on this,” Oliveira told them.

“Safety is our No. 1 concern at Lyft,” Davis replied before promising to look into the matter and get back to Oliveira later.

After the committee relieved Maredia and Davis, representatives of three lesser-known ride-hailing companies took their turn in the hot seats, including Get Me’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Gaubert, who had as his guest in the gallery former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin. Gaubert called Irvin “a business partner.” The presence of the three-time Super Bowl champion caused a stir among the lawmakers, including state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), who noted that he had an Irvin jersey during his childhood.

Gaubert downplayed to the committee the need for legislative action to proscribe fingerprint background checks. He explained that his company is successfully adding new drivers and riders in the wake of Uber and Lyft’s exit from Austin and that Get Me — which also operates in Dallas and Houston, among other cities — will be fully compliant with Austin’s fingerprinting requirement this August. He explained that the checks add an important layer of safety for passengers.

“Do you fingerprint in Dallas?” state Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R-Farmer’s Branch) asked Gaubert.

“No,” answered the formerly anonymous CEO.

“Why not?” Rinaldi pressed.

“It’s not required,” Gaubert said. He then added, “Do I think it’s something we should move towards? Yeah, I do actually.”

Wednesday’s discussion ended without any action by the committee, though it seemed likely that some members, including Villalba, are interested in pursuing action when the next legislative session begins in January.

After the meeting, the Austin Monitor reached out to state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) who, though not a member of the committee, was allowed to sit in and ask a few questions of Uber’s Maredia. Rodriguez, whose District 51 includes all of southeastern Travis County, told the Monitor that he understands Uber and Lyft’s push for regulatory consistency.

“They want consistency so they could do business according to their business model. I think their business model is fine as a baseline, but I don’t think any legislation should stop a city from going above and beyond that,” Rodriguez said.

Photo by Anthony Quintano made available through a Creative Commons license.

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