The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: A Modest Proposition

$2 million buys a whole lot of misinformation

By Michael King, April 22, 2016, News

I suppose Austinites should feel somewhat flattered that Uber and Lyft are willing to spend millions to impose themselves on the Austin transportation market, use the law to eliminate their competition, and – under the threat of ceasing operations – blackmail the voters into submission. Some observers believe it's an idle threat – that the exploding Austin market is too lucrative to abandon – but Uber and Lyft management have been ideologically committed to treating local governments as a underfunded nuisance or intimidating them into acquiescence. They just might believe it's worth their while to trade the Austin prize for plenty of other jurisdictions that will learn the cost of defiance – outraged consumers whose desire for ride-hailing convenience outweighs any consideration of ceding local authority to absentee billionaires.

Although the companies' contribution and expenditure filings provide a base estimate of more than $2 million already invested in the petition drive and voting campaign, we can't be certain of exactly how much they're spending because ancillary expenses like discount rides and the in-car "Vote for Prop 1" campaign are apparently not included, and because the reporting period ended before the major spending began. The funding has been accumulated and spent through their transparent front group, Ride­shar­ing Works for Austin, which still calls itself a "coalition" though it appears to have become a coalition of one. Early co-founders Austin Music People and ATX Safer Streets – whose participation was founded upon the utilitarian aspects of "ridesharing," for drivers and riders – both bowed out in February, issuing anodyne statements that avoided any endorsement of the outcome of the May 7 vote. (RWA's "supporters" page currently features only former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who's on the payroll.)

Tea and Sympathy

By contrast, the opponents of the Uber/Lyft Prop. 1 initiative – most prominently Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice – feature plenty of bold-faced official names, and very little money, at least by contrast to the RWA filings. If Our City manages to raise its $100,000 goal, they'll only be outspent at least 20 to 1. (Austin Unites, a much smaller opposition group, has raised about $1,600.) A day doesn't pass that I don't receive an RWA email or flier, view or hear an RWA media ad, or see a dozen or so RWA tweets in support of Prop. 1, all under the soothing slogan of "Keep Austin Moving Safely." I'm beginning to believe Uber and Lyft are not really amateur taxi companies at all, rather sponsors of mobile philanthropists bearing chamomile and comforters.

On Tuesday, several City Council members attempted to refute RWA's persistent deception that the defeat of Prop. 1 would mean the end of driver background checks, or that the taxpayers (rather than industry fees) would be on the hook for any future checks (to include fingerprints, the public safety and industry standard). The council members pointed out that regulatory fees are built into the current ordinance (and that Prop. 1 would actually reduce the potential fees), and noted that the original, 2014 ordinance (that RWA now praises) was in fact a temporary, unfinished attempt to establish basic rules for two corporations that were flagrantly operating illegally.

"Please don't be misled by skewed TV commercials and a multi-million-dollar advertising budget," urged Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, "from corporations that want to regulate themselves."

Democracy for Sale

That, of course, is the bottom line – having first operated illegally, Uber and Lyft want the voters to adopt regs that effectively ratify their illegal operations, while providing a direct advantage against their competition (all other drivers-for-hire, who are accustomed to fingerprint requirements). They are also reluctant to accept full liability for their drivers, whose private vehicle insurance is unlikely to be sufficient for the risks of acting as a common carrier (and for which professional drivers pay significant premiums).

What a deal. They may well succeed – that $2 million-plus is nothing to sneeze at, and hundreds of sound-bite lies are very difficult to refute with explanatory press conferences or an occasional email. It also needs to be acknowledged that many thousands of petition-signers who can't be bothered to vote in actual city elections have been suddenly energized by the prospect of losing their ride-hailing app – even if that pitch came via Downtown bars also fearing liability, and promoting a third-party drunk shuttle under the shamelessly dishonest pitch of "the city wants to ban Uber and Lyft."

The Uber- and Lyft-Lords do understand that when the argument is between money and public principle, the safe bet is on the money. We should all be a little in awe of the amount of cash they're willing to spend on a humble city proposition election, an unprecedented sum that makes the expensive 2014 mayoral campaign look like small beer indeed. If they win, well, they'll proceed to squeeze out the full-time cab drivers who have made an adequate if meager living in Austin's cockamamie transit market, while their part-time amateurs jockey for "surge" pricing and chase a receding windfall. And we can all look in the mirror and ponder the loss of one more dollop of proud self-government.

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