The Austin Chronicle

Lege Considers Protecting TNCs From Voter Tyranny

By Richard Whittaker, May 13, 2016, News

If you lose in court, you appeal to a higher court. If you're a corporation in Texas, and you lose a battle with a city, you go whine to the Legislature. That's what happened in 2015, when the city of Denton outlawed the practice of fracking within city limits, and the petrochemical industry simply got lawmakers to ban that ban. Now Republicans are saying they will effectively overturn Saturday's vote by Austinites to regulate ride-hailing companies.

It may seem like a moral conundrum for the Texas GOP – choosing sides between two Califor­nia companies or perennial legislative punching bag Austin – but it seems some lawmakers are siding with multibillion-dollar transportation network companies Uber and Lyft over the Austin electorate. On Sunday, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, went on a tweetstorm proclaiming that, next session, he will "file a bill establishing consistent & predictable statewide regulation of ridesharing services like #Uber & #Lyft." He then took to Face­book to clarify his comments, presenting what may be his line of attack. First, the standard free marketeer cant that "Texas should not accept transparent, union-driven efforts to create new barriers to entry for the sole purpose of stifling innovation and eliminating competition." Second, he presented it as a public safety issue, arguing that TNCs reduce the amount of drunk driving in Texas. He could have difficulty substantiating that claim, as APD intoxication manslaughter arrests rose since Uber and Lyft began operations in Austin, from 8 in 2014 to 12 in 2015. However, as Denton knows, facts and figures often mean nothing when Texas lawmakers want to give corporations free rein.

Schwertner is already getting social media support for his proposal from the fringe right. Rep. Tony Dale, R-Cedar Park, tweeted a screengrab of an Uber request for pickup at the Texas Capitol, with the simple phrase "See you in 2017. #txlege" attached. Not to be outdone in the social media posturing, Tea Party favorite Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, took to Facebook to rail that "local control again gives way to local tyranny," before adding, "I expect the legislature will take this issue up in 2017."

Lawmakers have already considered regulating the rideshare industry. In 2015, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, authored House Bill 2440, creating a statewide permitting process for firms, and a statewide standard for background checks. The bill actually made it out of the House Transportation Committee on a 10-2 vote, but was a victim of scheduling; Paddie only filed it on March 5, too late in the session to stand a chance of a real hearing.

The TNCs were extremely active in pushing Paddie's bill: Last session, Uber had a total of 28 registered lobbyists on its payroll in Texas, while Lyft had 10. The firms haven't let the pressure drop, with eight lobbyists apiece currently at the Capitol, even though the Lege doesn't meet for another eight months. Considering they were prepared to spend $10 million on the Austin election, it seems likely they won't blanch at throwing even more money behind Schwertner's bill.

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