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Texas Supreme Court Asked to Weigh in on Austin's Battle with Uber

An Austin resident, supported by Uber, has asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on the ballot language for a measure related to vehicle-for-hire companies scheduled to come before voters on May 7.

Austin Uber drivers participate in a rally against the proposal set by the Austin Transportation Department on Sept. 2, 2015.

The Texas Supreme Court has been pulled into the ongoing battle between Uber and the City of Austin.

An Austin resident, supported by Uber, has asked the Supreme Court to weigh in on the ballot language for a new measure regulating vehicle-for-hire companies within the city, scheduled to come before voters on May 7.

“The adopted ballot language wholly fails to inform voters as to what they are voting for,” reads the request, filed by Samantha Phelps, an active Uber supporter who helped collect signatures for a petition vying to overturn a stricter vehicle-for-hire ordinance approved by the city council. “The Council falsely portrayed the Proposed Ordinance as something that only takes away and does not give. That portrayal could not be further from the truth.”

In December, Austin’s City Council passed an ordinance requiring drivers for vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft to undergo fingerprint background checks. The ordinance sparked outrage from Uber supporters and spurred a petition organized by Ridesharing Works, a group largely funded by Uber and Lyft. The petition secured more than 25,000 signatures, forcing the city to either adopt an ordinance with lesser restrictions or put the proposed measure to a vote.

In February, the City Council opted to send the measure to a public vote and approved the language that would appear on the ballot. The writ, filled with the high court on Wednesday, asks for an “emergency stay” of the ballot preparation because the ballot language is scheduled to be “locked down” on Monday. Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

"Voters are asking for clarity, not confusion, so they can decide what types of transportation options they want in Austin,” said an Uber spokeswoman in a statement Thursday.

The approved ballot language asks voters if the original December ordinance should be repealed and replaced with an ordinance that would, “prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicles with a distinctive emblem, repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane, and require other regulations for Transportation Network Companies?”

The writ claims this language will “mislead Austin voters” as it does not address specifics of the proposed measure.

The writ reads, “the proposed ballot language gives recognizable descriptions of the regulations repealed by the Proposed Ordinance, but only the scantest vague reference to the regulations imposed by the Proposed Ordinance.”

The proposed ordinance would require all drivers to pass a national criminal background check and have drivers submit applications to the Austin Transportation Department detailing contact information, previous experience with vehicle-for-hire companies and proof of insurance. The measure grants the Department authority to enforce the proposed rules.

Uber has consistently resisted fingerprint-based background check requirements, pulling their operations from Galveston and Midland after the cities’ local governments passed laws including this requirement. Starting Sunday, the company is expected to cease operations in Corpus Christi due to a new ordinance requiring fingerprint-based background checks approved there. Despite its stated opposition on that issue, the company has continued to operate in Houston, where drivers are required to undergo those background checks.

Disclosure: Uber and Lyft are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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