TALLAHASSEE — What does Uber want?
After state lawmakers failed to pass any Uber-friendly bills, the ride-booking company sent an email blast to users and supporters Tuesday, asking them to sign an online petition.
“The Florida Legislature had a chance to pass legislation to keep Uber in Florida, but didn’t get it done,” the email said.
The petition urges lawmakers to add Uber to the agenda when the Legislature returns in special session this summer to finish the state budget for next year.
“Please don’t conclude this special session without getting this done,” the petition says, echoing the email. Uber set a goal of 20,000 signatures; it surpassed that Wednesday morning and reset the goal to 30,000.
But the petition doesn’t say which bills or what provisions the company wants to see passed in Florida.
Moreover, the 20-day special session will be devoted to the budget and policy measures may not make the cut. On Wednesday, both chambers agreed to meet June 1-20 but did not say what the “call” of the special session would be besides the annual spending plan.
The bill most likely to have passed this year mandated insurance coverage that was almost identical to a bill enacted in Kansas this week – one that caused Uber to stop operations there.
Not surprisingly, what Uber wants is a version of a House bill introduced this session before it was weighed down with amendments the company didn’t like.
“We just want a sensible, modern regulatory framework like the bill” that was first filed in the House, Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons said.
In other words, the company wants to be free from the drag of local regulations on hired cars, including taxis and limos.
In Tampa, for example, the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission wants Uber to abide by the same requirements for insurance coverage, vehicle inspections and driver background checks as other vehicles-for-hire.
It’s gone after Uber over the last year by ticketing its drivers, sending warning letters and even suing.
The app-based service has come under attack elsewhere, from Jacksonville to Broward County, where Uber is threatening to pull out.
Most recently, Broward County commissioners approved rules governing “transportation network companies” such as Uber and Lyft, a competing service. Like taxi drivers, they’ll also be subject to fingerprint-based background checks and vehicle inspections.
In Tallahassee, Uber’s 23 registered lobbyists pushed a far-reaching House bill (HB 817) that would, most importantly, take away regulatory power from local boards and reserve it to the state.
The idea was that Florida state lawmakers would be friendlier to Uber’s concerns.
It’s happened elsewhere. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican and likely presidential candidate, signed a bill into law last week that also creates statewide standards for ride-booking services.
But Uber’s feelings for the Florida House bill got complicated when state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Pinellas County Republican, tacked on an amendment requiring fingerprint-based background checks. Uber has opposed those because of cost.
Using only name-based background checks leaves open the possibility of potential drivers listing phony names, putting “riders at risk of being victimized,” Peters said last month.
After the House quit three days early last week, stymied by a dispute with the Senate over building Medicaid expansion into the state budget, the bill’s sponsor said he’ll carry the bill again.
“There is no army on the planet Earth stronger than an idea whose time has come,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Panhandle Republican. “Ridesharing in this state is happening; they’re growing market share and they will continue to do so.”
As one sign of bare-knuckle tactics this session, Gaetz tried, though unsuccessfully, to amend a transportation bill to defund road projects for cities and counties that regulate Uber and similar services.
Even before his own bill was changed, however, it still would have set minimum insurance coverage at different levels depending on whether an Uber driver was giving a ride or was in the car waiting for one.
With a ride, the driver needed $1 million liability coverage for death, bodily injury, and property damage; without a ride, “$50,000 for death (or) injury per person, $100,000 for death (or) injury per (accident), and $25,000 for property damage,” the bill says.
Those are the very same provisions passed in Kansas, vetoed by GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and then overridden this week by that state’s Republican-controlled legislature.
But that measure also includes a mandated fingerprint-based background check for drivers.
Even before the veto override was final, Uber users in Kansas were seeing a message when they opened the app on their smartphones: “No pickups: effective immediately.”
Insurance also was the aim of Senate legislation (SB 1298), though its policy limits were slightly different.
The Senate bill passed 28-12 and went to the House, where both bills died by the session’s expiration late Friday night.
Roger Chapin, spokesman for the Florida Taxicab Association, sent his own email Wednesday questioning Uber’s desire for any kind of legislation.
“If the Legislature passes any law that deviates from Uber’s business model, will Uber follow the law then?” said Chapin, vice president of Mears Transportation, a Central Florida taxi and hired-car provider.
“I think we know the answer,” he added. “If they spent half as much on compliance as they do on lobbyists and public relations, they could be legal throughout Florida.”
The company has stepped up its marketing initiative, delivering puppies from animal shelters earlier this year and partnering with Goodwill this past weekend to pick up and deliver donations for free.
What Uber also wants, at least for now, is good PR.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.