Local background checks for ride-hailing firms

AUSTIN — A bill to regulate ride-hailing firms like Uber and Lyft moved forward in the Legislature on Wednesday, with the lawmaker pushing the measure vowing to allow cities to enforce their local ordinances for driver background checks.
The proposed change to the bill, announced by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, during a committee hearing, marks a potential major concession on behalf of Uber, which has vigorously fought attempts to require its drivers to be subjected to local ordinances that require fingerprint-based background checks.

“This will give the authority to the cities that if they choose to require more in that they want to require fingerprints, as Houston does, they will be able to do that,” Paddie said, noting that Uber and Lyft are supporting the change.

Paddie added: “We basically said, ‘Cities, we heard ya.’”

The measure went on to win approval in the House Transportation Committee on a 10-2 vote with Democratic Reps. Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Celia Israel of Austin opposed.

During the hearing, Davis questioned whether allowing cities to set their own ordinances for background checks would keep in place a “mishmash” of local regulations that the bill originally sought to undo.

“There’s still potential for a mishmash,” Paddie replied, noting that standards for permitting and insurance would be regulated statewide. He also said cities that do not have established ordinances for background checks would be subject to Uber’s process, which does not include fingerprints.

Uber, backed by a powerful roster of lobbyists, is trying to get the Legislature to allow it to sidestep local ordinances established in cities like San Antonio and Houston in favor of a statewide regulation plan. The original bill would have pre-empted local ordinances in favor of statewide regulation, eliminating the ability of a city to regulate background checks for Uber drivers.

Paddie introduced a tweaked version of his bill Wednesday that allowed cities some control of background checks by requiring Uber and similar companies that link riders and drivers by smartphone to access a state criminal fingerprinting database.

That modification, however, was quickly blasted. Houston officials said it was meaningless and still left a gaping hole in the ability to keep potentially dangerous drivers off the road.

Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the city of Houston’s Regulatory Affairs Department, called it “useless” in assuring drivers are properly screened because it didn’t specifically require fingerprints.

Paddie said he planned to scratch that section and replace it with new language making clear that the bill does not pre-empt cities from requiring fingerprint-based checks. He said that change would be cemented with an amendment when the bill is debated on the House floor.

“We’re going to say, ‘Cities. you make that determination,’” Paddie said, noting that he expects the change will eliminate “the vast majority of concerns.”

But Ed Kargbo, president of Yellow Cab Austin, said the legislation still is flawed because cities or the state should be responsible for background checks on Uber drivers.

“It feels like they’re still letting the fox guard the henhouse,” he said.

City officials in San Antonio were briefed Wednesday by staff on changes to the bill but did not take action or a position. The city has said it is opposing the bill.

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