Could Any of These Three Ride-Share Bills Keep Uber in Houston for Good?

Given there are three bills filed in the Legislature that would strip cities of their ability to regulate ride-share companies, like Uber, there appears to be a pretty good chance that Uber's beef with Houston over fingerprint background checks and its past threats to leave town may all become moot.

All three bills, filed by Republican senators, seek to deregulate ride-sharing to varying extents. Two seek to transfer the regulation powers to the state level, and the third seeks to remove almost all regulations at the state and local levels for ride-share companies, taxis and limos. If any of the bills pass, cities, including Houston, would be unable to require fingerprint background checks, or require a lengthy permitting process, drug testing or physicals. Basically, Houston would be unable to enforce any rules against the companies.

Which might be an important change given Uber's uncertain future in Houston, stemming from its disagreement with many of the city's regulations. In November, Uber and the city reached a temporary agreement lasting through the Super Bowl in which Uber would continue the fingerprint background checks for drivers while the city agreed to lower costs for permitting from $200 to $70, cut the length of the process in half and ensure drivers could get licensed in under 20 minutes. But that's short-term. What happens after the Super Bowl ends?

Welp, any one of these bills might just be what's needed to ensure that Uber sticks around for good.

The most drastic of the bunch is filed by State Senator Don Huffines of Dallas. Under Huffines's bill, for all ride-for-hire companies, including taxis, limos and firms like Uber, the only requirements that would remain in place would be a prohibition on hiring sex offenders as drivers and making sure all drivers are insured. Otherwise, the companies would essentially operate just like any other private business: They wouldn't necessarily be "required" by anyone to do background checks on drivers — but you'd hope they'd use their best judgment when hiring and toss the applications of convicted robbers or burglars, aided by third-party background checks.

"One great thing about his bill is that it would create an even playing field in the entire transportation service sector," said Bryan Mathew of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. "The ability of lobbyists or special interests to try to preserve their advantages through [the Legislature] instead of trying to offer a better product on the market is taken away."

Mathew said he would see it as unfair if only ride-share companies were deregulated, as is the case with the other two bills. But still, given the public safety assurances those two bills make, by still requiring background checks at the state level, Mathew said perhaps it would be best if the bills could be
combined, preserving the best attributes of each.

The other two bills, filed by Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown and Senator Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, are similar in that the state would be in charge of regulating ride-share companies (both with less onerous regulations, Mathew said). But each differs in a couple of key ways: Schwertner's still requires companies to have a permit on file with the state, for which they must pay annual fees, unlike Nichols's bill. Nichols requires ride-share companies to have an "intoxicating substance" policy, prohibiting drivers from driving intoxicated on the job (thank God?), and also requires them to have a nondiscrimination policy (which does not protect LGBT people, but we assume that this was a total accident that he will correct as soon as he notices the oversight).

Mathew said any one of the bills would provide key improvements to the transportation market. "When we lower the level of regulation, then we allow people who have good ideas to be able to innovate, to start new companies that maybe solve transportation problems in new, creative ways without having to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process that sometimes bewilders them," he said.

An Uber spokesman would not say whether there is a specific bill that the company supports, but did seem to support the measures in general. Travis Considine, communications manager of Uber Texas, said in a statement:

"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 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