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Ahead of Austin Election Over Regulating Uber, Local Leaders Take Sides

With less than a month until Austin voters will be asked to decide how to regulate vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft, advocates on both sides are amping up their campaign efforts.

President of Taxi Drivers Association of Austin, Dave Passmore, right, and board member, Nega Taddesse, left, spoke to the media about their concerns with Uber and Lyft on March 15, 2016. Alongside Passmore and Taddesse, a group of drivers gathered outside a major South by Southwest event to protest Uber’s attempt to bully the City of Austin into adopting its version of a ride-sharing ordinance.

With less than a month until Austin voters will be asked to decide how to regulate vehicle-for-hire companies such as Uber and Lyft, advocates on both sides are amping up their campaign efforts.

On Tuesday, six members of the Austin City Council were joined by local leaders including Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding and Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday at a press conference to speak out against the proposed ordinance, which is strongly backed by Uber and Lyft.

"Regardless of how you feel about ridesharing, this would set a bad precedent for how we create policy in our city," Harding said. He emphasized that the election is not about the vehicle-for-hire companies and is instead, "about whether the people, and the power of the people, can defeat the power of money."

At issue is whether drivers of Uber and Lyft have to submit to fingerprint background checks, a requirement that traditional taxi drivers have to comply with but which Uber and Lyft have fought tooth and nail.

Officials with both companies have criticized fingerprint requirements as overly burdensome and unnecessary. Drivers working fewer than 20 hours a week are critical to the reliability of their services, they say, and requiring them to visit an office to be fingerprinted dissuades many from signing up.

In Texas, Uber has recently ceased operations in three cities over respective background check laws – Corpus ChristiGalveston and Midland — and has threatened to make the same move in Austin if Proposition 1 is not adopted. 

However, Uber has continued to operate in Houston, the state's largest city, despite a local regulation there that requires drivers to undergo fingerprint-based background check – a point none of the opponents to Proposition 1 have missed. 

"Uber complains that fingerprint background checks are too much of a burden, yet they comply with the regulation right down 290 in Houston, Texas," Casaday said. "It is just a pure case of bullying by Uber and Lyft."

In December, the Austin City Council passed a new ordinance requiring drivers for vehicle-for-hire companies to undergo fingerprint-based background checks. The vote was quickly met with a petition drive organized by Ridesharing Works for Austin, a group largely funded by Uber and Lyft. The petition garnered more than 25,000 signatures, forcing the city to either adopt a weaker ordinance outlined in the petition or put the measure to a vote. 

The Council voted in February to send the measure to a public vote. The issue will appear as Proposition 1 in a May 7 election. The ballot will ask voters if the original December ordinance should be repealed and replaced with a law that would “prohibit required fingerprinting, repeal the requirement to identify the vehicles with a distinctive emblem" and "repeal the prohibition against loading and unloading passengers in a travel lane."

The city clerk estimated the election could cost upwards of $500,000 for the city to put on. Gina Hinojosa – a member of the Austin Independent School District Board and the Democratic candidate running unopposed to fill Rep. Elliott Naishtat's seat in the Texas House – lamented how the city could have otherwise used that money, such as funding after-school programs.

"They are forcing Austin to pay for an election to the tune of over $500,000," she said at Tuesday's press conference. "Half a million dollars. Do you know what we could do with half a million dollars in this city?"

Ridesharing Works has released several ads supporting the Proposition 1 measure, detailing the safety of vehicle-for-hire companies and their role in the city. On Monday, the group released an ad featuring former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who was named chairman of the Vote for Prop. 1 Campaign. 

“I have been a strong proponent of public safety and economic opportunity during my time in public service," Leffingwell said in a statement. "The rules that I and the City Council put in place in 2014 allowed for companies like Uber and Lyft to operate with stringent background checks while helping to reduce DWI accidents and providing safe, reliable rides for Austinites. On May 7th, I hope all Austin voters will join me in supporting Proposition 1.”

Former city council member Laura Morrison, who also spoke at Tuesday's press conference, accused Uber of pouring "millions of dollars into a disinformation campaign, misleading the public by pretending the council wants to drive them out of town." 

While the issue is currently being tackled city-by-city at the local level, former state Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, who also spoke at Tuesday's press conference, said he could see it move to the Legislature.

"Oh, absolutely it could be solved by statewide regulation," he said following the press conference. "But I think we should give the local entities the responsibility of dealing with it first." 

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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