State Politics

Plan to regulate Uber, Lyft all but dead in Florida Legislature

Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, center, delivers 32,500 signatures from an on-line petition to Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner’s office in the Florida Capitol, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in support of an Uber bill.
Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, center, delivers 32,500 signatures from an on-line petition to Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner’s office in the Florida Capitol, Thursday, March 10, 2016, in support of an Uber bill. TAMPA BAY TIMES

After months of arguing over how to regulate companies like Uber and Lyft, state lawmakers are back where they started: A lingering disagreement that is likely to drive the bill off a cliff on Friday, the last day of the legislative session.

The Florida House and Senate cannot agree on how to address local governments’ regulations of ride-sharing companies. The trouble is the taxicab industry, which has historically been regulated by local officials. The newer tech companies want to be free from county rules and outright bans that they have faced in some jurisdictions.

While the Senate’s rules allow the issue to come up Friday, the differences between that chamber and the House are vast.

“We’re just kind of at an impasse,” Senate President Andy Gardiner , R-Orlando, said, acknowledging little likelihood of a deal. “Just keep the faith. There’s always next year.”

The Florida House in January passed legislation on a near-unanimous vote that would set insurance and background check requirements for the ride-sharing companies and prevent local governments from adding their own regulations or outright bans.

But Senate leaders have refused to put that language into their proposed bill, sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. He favors settling the insurance issue without overruling local regulators’ decisions.

After a 10-minute speech Thursday afternoon, Simmons postponed a vote on two competing proposals.

With one day left in the legislative session, that’s essentially a kiss of death.

“We can get a piece of this solved,” Simmons said. Senate leaders, he said, have made “really big concessions” to the ridesharing companies.

But ride-sharing companies and their allies say preemption is essential.

“If I go from my home in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to my favorite restaurant in Pensacola, Fla., I’m going to drive through seven different political subdivisions,” Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz said. “Does anyone really believe that there should be seven different sets of rules for ride-sharing companies?”

What’s more, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has been pushing the House’s bill in the Senate, said he has the support of more than half the chamber.

“President Gardiner has always been telling us, ‘Don’t fear the debate.’ ” he said. “We have yet to have the debate on ride sharing.”

The result isn’t surprising.

Gardiner, who is close friends with the owner of Orlando cab company Mears Transportation, said before the legislative session began that he opposes preempting local governments.

But Uber has targeted the Senate president with an ad blitz in Tallahassee and Orlando and mailers sent to his constituents. Thursday afternoon, the company delivered 32,500 signed petitions to his office in the Capitol.

In fact, all sides have turned to Tallahassee to fight the battle. Uber is paying at least 30 lobbyists this year while Lyft recently recruited former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum as an advocate, and taxi companies have hired more than a dozen lobbyists.

Insurance companies have been entrenched in the debate, too, as any plan coming out of the Legislature is likely to allow them to create new insurance plans with high limits for ride-sharing drivers.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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