Bayou City

Bill Proposes Texas Officials Regulate Uber Instead of Cities

As anticipated, State Senator Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) has filed a bill for the 2017 legislative session proposing that ride-share companies like Uber be regulated by the state instead of individual cities.

The bill would require ride-share firms to pay an annual fee to the state and require drivers to undergo an extensive national criminal background check as part of the application process — but fingerprint background checks, which have caused the most tension between Houston officials and Uber, do not appear to be part of Schwertner's legislation.

Despite the fact that Uber left Austin over the city's required fingerprint background checks and has threatened to leave other cities, including Houston, for the same reason, Houston officials have refused to give in to Uber's wishes, saying the fingerprint background checks are crucial for public safety. Uber, however, says the city's licensing process has become so onerous for drivers, taking weeks or even months to complete, that more than 20,000 drivers have been deterred from signing up. (In August, the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department provided data showing the process was only taking most drivers about eight days.)

If Schwertner's bill were to become law, it doesn't look like fingerprints would continue to be a controversy. The Texas Commission of Licensing and Regulation would use a "commercial multi-state and multi-jurisdictional records locator" service and would validate the service's primary sources of information before using it. State officials would also comb the National Sex Offender Public Registry and the applicant's driving record before issuing the two-year permit. Three moving violations in three years, or one driving-related criminal charge in the past three years, would bar a person from being your driver. And anyone who's ever been convicted of a sex offense, fraud or a host of certain felonies also could not get hired.

That's not all too different from how it works in Houston — except here, the fingerprint background check is supposed to serve as a second line of defense in case a criminal conviction slipped through the cracks and did not show up on the online background check. Drivers also have to undergo a physical exam and a drug test before getting the permit, two items that do not appear part of the bill's requirements for permitting.

As mayor's office spokeswoman Janice Evans told us in an email in August: "This is about public safety. The mayor is not willing to compromise on that. He has said he wants Uber in Houston. That has not changed. However, he has also said that if he has to choose between public safety and Uber leaving, it will not be a close call."

Looks like there's a chance Mayor Sylvester Turner won't ever have to make that call.

Uber appears to support the legislation. In a statement sent to the Houston Press Monday, Uber's Texas Public Affairs Lead Trevor Theunissen said:

“No matter where people live in the Lone Star State, they deserve the same economic opportunity and access to reliable transportation options that Uber provides. That is why we are encouraged that the Texas Legislature is interested in replicating the great work many Texas cities have already implemented. We look forward to working with all lawmakers across the state to ensure that all Texans have the ability to access a safe, reliable, and affordable ride 24/7 at the push of a button.”
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn