The Austin Chronicle

Leffingwell Shares the Ride

By Michael King, April 12, 2016, 8:00am, Newsdesk

Ridesharing Works for Austin, the coalition leading the campaign in favor of Proposition 1, announced today that former mayor Lee Leffingwell has joined the campaign as chairman. “I am proud to join the Vote For Prop. 1 campaign,” said Leffingwell in a press release.

“I have been a strong proponent of public safety and economic opportunity during my time in public service," Leffingwell continued. "… On May 7th, I hope all Austin voters will join me in supporting Proposition 1.” He defended the rules adopted by City Council in 2014 as providing "stringent background checks while helping to reduce DWI accidents and providing safe, reliable rides for Austinites."

On the phone Monday afternoon, Leffingwell argued that the proposed Prop. 1 ordinance – placed on the May 7 ballot by petition – “reverts, with a couple of tweaks,” to the 2014 ordinance. “I supported it back in 2014,” he said, and said the original ordinance provided rules that “everybody can live with.” He told the Chronicle that Ridesharing Works had reached out to him for support, and that he feels strongly that if Prop. 1 is defeated, there is a “very serious risk that we could lose that [ridesharing] service.”

Leffingwell said that he hadn’t talked to anyone at Uber or Lyft (the transportation network companies promoting and underwriting the Prop 1 campaign), and that he doesn’t know why the companies are so adamantly opposed to fingerprinting their drivers. (Both Uber and Lyft have threatened that should fingerprinting of their drivers be required, they will cease doing business in Austin.) Leffingwell speculated that their business model – under which they recruit hundreds of part-time drivers who drive at various times and for differing periods – might make fingerprinting onerous. “There’s only one city [Houston] where Uber has accepted fingerprinting [Lyft will not operate in cities requiring fingerprinting], and it’s my understanding that the system there is not very robust.” (He added that fingerprinting may also be required in New York City, but that the regulatory context there is not comparable to Austin.)

Leffingwell emphasized that his primary concern is the potential loss of the service if Uber and Lyft decide to leave, as well as the loss of part-time jobs for thousands of Austinites now working as drivers. Asked about the potential effects on full-time cab drivers, steadily losing peak-time business to TNC drivers, he responded, “I don’t want to put anybody out of work,” but that the cab companies would need to adapt to the new circumstances. “As a former airline pilot, I survived deregulation of the airlines, and the world changes all the time.” In his experience on the Council, he said, “The cab companies never want any more cabs out there … and that simply doesn’t work for the community.”

Asked about the amount of money (officially reported in excess of $2 million) already spent by Uber and Lyft to promote the campaign, Leffingwell said, “Much of that is ‘in-kind’ contributions by their staffs,” and that in any case, the petition process is well established, as exemplified by the Save Our Springs Ordinance, the anti-smoking ordinance, and the 10-1 Council itself (all initiated by petition). He said the 2014 ordinance “had been vetted by the Council,” and that he appreciated Mayor Steve Adler’s last-minute attempt this year to “broker a compromise … that was rejected by the Council.”

Although it’s still early for the May 7 election, Leffingwell’s is the most prominent name currently identified with the pro-Prop 1 campaign. Many current or former public officials have declared their opposition — County Commissioner Brigid Shea, former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, former mayor Frank Cooksey, and most current Council members – have lent their names to Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, the group most prominently opposing Prop. 1.

Prominently listed among those opponents are former Leffingwell Council colleagues Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison. Morrison told the Chronicle Monday that her memory of the 2014 ordinance is that it was consistently discussed and publicly described as a temporary measure which would require refinement, and moreover, that when Council sponsor Chris Riley responded to questions about the proposed details from other Council members, he would repeatedly answer, “I’ll need to ask Uber and Lyft.”

“That ordinance was essentially drafted by Uber and Lyft,” Morrison said, “and it’s simply disinformation to say, ‘That law is settled.’ We always knew Council would need to return to it and refine the details after we saw how it was working in practice.”

Although the public safety issue represented by fingerprinting drivers is very important to her – "that's what the public safety experts recommend" – to Morrison the overriding political question is, “Who’s going to run Austin: citizens or corporations? … This is a very scary path we’re headed on. What’s next? Developers will pour in money to write their own rules, or corporations will decide how we’re going to manage Austin Energy?”

Considering the petition initiative and current campaign, she continued, “This is not a grassroots campaign [for Prop 1] like SOS or 10-1,” Morrison insisted. “It's a corporate-led initiative. The opposition is the people vs. massive amounts of money.”

Morrison reiterated, “This is not about whether you like Uber and Lyft. I hope they don’t leave town, but they’re the ones that have said, ‘Do it our way or we’re leaving,’ and that’s really questionable to me. Austin is a lucrative market, and if they leave, other companies have already indicated they will fill the void. It might be rocky until they scale up – but this campaign is about people vs. money.”

The “Our City” group is holding a press conference outside City Hall this morning, 11:45 am, where they plan to “speak out against Uber’s corporate initiative.” Morrison is among the scheduled speakers, who also include Sen. Barrientos, Austin ISD board member Gina Hinojosa, Ken Casaday of the Austin Police Association, TCDP Chair Harding, and Roy Waley of the Sierra Club.

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