Rubio, state lawmakers push for deregulation of taxi industry

03/24/2014 7:09 PM

03/25/2014 6:07 AM

When Sen. Marco Rubio wanted to take his family to dinner in the nation’s capital on Sunday, he got out his iPhone and ordered a car from Uber.

But when he recently talked up the service while home in Florida, he was blocked. “Up comes a message saying, ‘Sorry we can’t pick you up in Miami because your county commission won’t allow it,’ ” Rubio said Monday while visiting Uber’s Washington office.

In Uber, which has felt resistance from the taxi business in cities across the country, Rubio sees a lesson in free market enterprise and the stifling effect of regulation.

“We do need regulations to protect the consumer from unfair practices and to protect the safety of the public,” Rubio said. “But what regulation should never be is a weapon that is used by connected and established industry to crowd out innovation and competitors.”

In Miami, a person wanting a non-taxi service must wait at least an hour and pay a minimum $70 regardless of the trip duration, according to Uber.

The company is fighting back.

In Tallahassee on Monday, not long after Rubio’s appearance in Washington, a panel of lawmakers narrowly approved a proposal allowing companies like Uber to circumvent municipalities and win approval from the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The vote came two months after a Miami-Dade county commissioner shelved legislation that would have deregulated the industry and allowed Uber to set up shop in South Florida.

Uber has also been rebuffed in Florida markets such as Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, a company spokesman said. It operates in Jacksonville.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, filed proposals seeking to create “chauffeured limousine service” to be regulated by the state.

Rubio, who said he had not read that bill, said that the general issue came up in a class he teaches at Florida International University. “I suddenly had a bunch of 21-year-old antiregulatory activists on my hands,” he joked at Uber’s office, which is very much a construction site, a nod to its fast growth.

The company and its staff exudes a youthful, tech savvy that fits Rubio’s attempts to show himself as a newer style Republican. A few weeks ago, the 42-year-old potential 2016 presidential candidate appeared at Google’s Washington offices and talked about freeing up more wireless spectrum for the private sector, as well as limiting regulation.

But asked by a reporter Monday if the Uber example may be a way to communicate with young people, Rubio demurred.

“It might be,” he said, before saying that his point was to argue “oftentimes big government is an impediment to people who are trying to make it.”

Rubio made the trip from Capitol Hill in an Uber-operated Mercedes S-550 Sedan ($23, paid directly through the phone app).

“The loser at the end of the day isn’t just the innovator, it’s the consumer,” Rubio said.

“There’s anecdotal evidence that in D.C. the taxi cab service has improved,” since services like Uber began, Rubio said, citing the use of credit card readers. “The competition is driving an improvement.”

Critics, including taxi cab drivers who say their livelihood is being threatened, point out that Uber rides are not always the cheapest option and the company uses a pricing strategy that can drive up rates considerably at high demand.

Anticipating a dogfight in Tallahaassee, Uber registered a dozen lobbyists in Florida, including prominent lobbyist and fundraiser David Ramba.

The measure (HB 1389) met opposition from the taxi and limousine industries, which argued that Uber should not be given special freedoms from regulation. Municipalities, meanwhile, insisted they not lose their ability to regulate transportation services.

Rep. Hazel Rogers, a Lauderhill Democrat, brought up the fact that many people would not be able to access Uber’s services because they do not have access to a credit card and smartphone.

“There is still a digital divide in communities that impacts a lot of folks,” Rogers said. “I cannot support any legislation that has a potential to discriminate against the elderly and impoverished.”

Uber was on hand to support the measure.

“We aren’t looking to displace the taxi industry,” spokesman Justin Kintz said.

Grant was critical of the “artificial cap” and other barriers municipalities had placed on the number of transportation services wanting to do business within their boundaries.

“What public good is served by your constituents being served to pay a minimum fare for a service they want?” he asked.

He said the bill would benefit both consumers and drivers.

The proposal passed by an 8-6 vote, with Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, saying he would withdraw his support unless some changes were made.

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