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Friday, February 21, 2014

Controversial Uber and Lyft regulation bill debated in House hearing

Traditional taxis and limos won their first game of chicken with ride-share startups at the Gold Dome last night as a House committee passed a bill requiring basic licensing and oversight of Uber, Lyft and, similar companies. The hearing was the first on a hotly contested bill that has put the Silicon Valley companies - especially Uber - on the offensive.

Uber Atlanta General Manager Keith Radford was in demolition derby mode, calling House Bill 907 "not something that we can actually support" as it moves from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee to the House floor. But a Lyft rep was in more of a carpool mindset (sorry, we couldn't resist), saying the writing is on the wall for car service regulation around the country and that the legislation could turn out OK with additional work. (Here's background about the heated battle between taxi, limos, and ride-share companies in Atlanta.)

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, railed against Uber's earlier claims that he's trying to kill the upstart car service industry on behalf of the taxi lobby.

Decrying "ugly emails from Uber-ites," Powell issued perhaps the ultimate insult: "They're worse than any newspaper that can't tell the truth."

He praised Uber and Lyft as a "better mousetrap" that might benefit his rural constituents while traditional taxis might "go the way of the rotary dial phone." His only concern is equal public safety standards, he said, adding that taxi lobbyists had no role in writing the bill.

The limo lobby did, however, and lobbyist Les Schneider is the one who went through the details of the latest version. It was issued only shortly before the hearing and vote last night.

The bill would require companies such as Uber, Lyft, and other "transportation referral service providers" to register with the state for $100 per year; individual drivers would pay no fee. Car services could continue to conduct their own driver background checks and car inspections, but those would have to be forwarded to state agencies for review. Drivers would need to carry minimum liability insurance matching current limo driver standards. Public safety officials said those double-checks could require hiring more staffers.

An earlier provision ending the sales tax on all types of car services was scrapped. Instead, the bill calls for a "study committee" to review the issue.

It was unclear whether the bill clarifies another controversy: whether UberX, which features drivers shuttling passengers in their personal vehicles, should be considered a taxi service by cities. Cedric Burse, the City of Atlanta's taxi regulator, told the committee he's having trouble seeing legal distinctions.

Powell and Uber's Radford verbally sparred at length, with Radford frequently backpedaling.

Radford said the bill would "materially damage" Uber's business, but was unable to point to any specific part that does. He claimed that Uber's current driver and car inspections are excellent, yet also said both are undergoing major revamps. The Uber rep said several times that the company's background checks found criminal records for some former licensed taxi drivers, but provided no details to back up the anecdote.

Powell blasted Uber for "this attitude that the state has no right... to scrutinize what we're doing for the safety of the citizens of Georgia."

"It's not that we don't want to be regulated," Radford replied, explaining Uber just wants the law to recognize that its business model is different from traditional taxis.

Various other lobbyists weighed in, with the restaurant industry warning about hurting Uber and the hotel industry backing Powell's bill.

A few Uber fans spoke as well. Greg Williams, chair of the Buckhead Young Republicans, said he has driven for Uber and that he's "shocked and embarrassed" Republicans are backing regulation that could hurt the industry. And a resident who is blind described how Uber's fully voice-accessible app has changed his life by making travel much easier for him.

The bill now moves to the House Rules Committee to be scheduled (or not) for a floor vote in the lower chamber. Then it's on the state Senate for more fun.

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