The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission was created to protect customers, but it has become more focused on protecting its friends instead. That’s why Florida legislators are trying to fix the PTC and return its attention to actually protecting customers.
Tampa is one of only a handful of metro areas where limo drivers are explicitly prohibited from giving customers a deal. For the crime of giving customers a discount on the government-mandated $50 minimum fare, a limo driver faces fines, suspension and even arrest.
Wherever there is a counterintuitive, anti-consumer regulation in place, there is likely to be a politically powerful, entrenched business that relies on the government to ward off competition. Tampa is no exception. The taxicab companies are lobbying legislators in Tallahassee to keep in place their lucrative protection racket. What is more problematic is that the PTC is in on the game, too; it has its own team of lobbyists padding the halls of the state capital.
Thankfully, state Sen. Jeff Brandes and state Rep. Jamie Grant, along with a coalition of other legislators, are trying to repeal the PTC minimum-fare rule. Today, the Florida Senate Transportation Committee is to hold a hearing to consider a bill that would eliminate the minimum-fare rule, among other things
But lobbyists for the big players in the taxicab and limousine industries, along with their friends on the PTC, are doing everything possible to put a stop to it. Those taxicab companies are perfectly happy to let the PTC order their competitors to overcharge their customers. In fact, the only negotiation allowed under the current rule is paying more, not less, for a ride.
Fortunately, some entrepreneurs actually want to grow their businesses and create jobs by offering better deals to customers, if only the PTC would get out of the way. But these small business owners and customers do not have lobbyists like the PTC and major corporations, so a legislative fix appears to be an uphill battle.
The good news is that a group of plaintiffs, including an entrepreneur, his small business and two customers, have partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the minimum-fare rule. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, but merely asks the court to remove this unconstitutional ban on giving customers good deals.
Of course, the PTC and the entrenched interests are fighting back. Not only has the PTC hired attorneys to fight the lawsuit, but a conglomerate of taxicab corporations apparently didn’t trust in the PTC’s ability to defend itself against the suit and hired their own attorneys to assist the commission.
Deep pockets, however, will not allow these bullies to avoid the Florida Constitution forever. There is substantial precedent protecting the rights of Florida customers to bargain on price, as well as the right of Florida entrepreneurs to earn an honest living without unreasonable government interference.
The minimum-fare rule is more than just unreasonable — it is unconstitutional, too.
Most cities, including many in Florida, do not have minimum-fare rules at all, yet they still manage to have a thriving transportation market. But, then again, most places outside of Tampa also realize that customers don’t need protection from low prices any more than they need protection from food that is too delicious, pillows that are too soft or Internet service that is too fast.
The PTC has put Tampa at the cutting edge of inventing new ways to rip off its citizens and tourists. For now. If Sen. Brandes and Rep. Grant’s legislation gets stymied, hopefully the courts will use the Florida Constitution to accomplish what politicians cannot and finally force the PTC to protect customers, instead of special interests, for a change.
Justin Pearson is the executive director of the Institute for Justice, Florida Chapter, and the lead attorney in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Hillsborough County’s minimum-fare rule.