You may have missed the fast one that friends of Uber, the increasingly ubiquitous online vehicle-for-hire company, tried to drive through the recent special legislative session.
Because their customers use a smartphone application to book rides from freelance drivers in private vehicles, Internet-based companies such as Uber, Lyft and others have argued that they are not traditional taxi services and thus aren’t subject to the same rules.
The ride-hailing services’ worldwide popularity has sped off faster than the legal and regulatory challenges. Critics claim the companies’ ride-first, rules-later business model has run over or simply ignored traditional business requirements such as licensing fees, and such key consumer protections as sufficient levels of insurance and proper driver background checks.
One result of the collision of interests has been violent protests, most recently in France, where Uber claims a million riders, but taxi drivers last week shut down access to train stations and both of Paris’ main airports. Online fraud units on Monday arrested two top Uber executives as part of the government’s promised crackdown.
Similar protests throughout Florida, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, have been much less violent but barely less heated. In Palm Beach County, officials in March stopped fining Uber for operating without proper licensing, and instead entered into a temporary operating agreement while negotiating policy. By May, five transportation companies had sued the county, specifically citing Uber as having “a history of coming into a particular city or county and attempting to obtain special treatment so that it need not comply with local and/or state regulations with which its competitors must comply.”
While it is clear that many people like the convenience of the Ubers of the world, varied interests, public and private, correctly want the Internet-based companies to drive their policies and ride by rules as required of any business. That has prompted calls for Tallahassee to flag what local officials haven’t been able to regulate.
During the past regular session, however, legislators couldn’t agree even on levels of insurance or background checks for Uber drivers. The notion of taking up Uber legislation again during the special session, where crucial budget matters demanded attention, was a nonstarter.
Yet legislators drove Uber into the special session anyway, and worse, in a way that reeked of special treatment. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the Senate Justice Appropriations chairman, tried to include a proposal by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, to set aside $10,000 for a seemingly well-intentioned study of the ride services’ impact on reducing drunken driving.
The proposal was rightly pulled from the budget discussions after Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, noted the obvious: Local officials also would have been barred from enacting any new regulation of Uber or similar services while the study was being conducted. She correctly chastised her colleagues for trying to drive the moratorium “through the back door.”
Joyner’s Senate colleagues must have been doing some California dreaming: That state’s labor commission last week ruled against Uber’s argument that its drivers are independent contractors rather than employees. The decision raises workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, Social Security and other cost implications for the company’s $40 billion valuation.
It also illustrates the kind of local regulation being contemplated by officials in South Florida and elsewhere around the world. There was more backlash Tuesday in New York City, for example, where officials are proposing a better study than the one pushed by Florida legislators: a freeze in for-hire vehicle licenses, pending a study of the increased congestion expected from both taxicabs and the rapidly growing ride-booking traffic. “The onslaught of vehicles is so tremendous that it seems actually irresponsible not to legislate in some way,” one official said — even as dozens of people outside were attending an Uber-supported rally.
Joyner’s view is that the companies should be regulated locally, like many other transportation services. Yet on the issue of liability alone, the Ubers clearly have demonstrated the need for overarching oversight. If state legislators aren’t going to take on that responsibility, they at least shouldn’t enact roadblocks against local officials trying to meet theirs.