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Tuesday, Jun 19, 2018
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Senate advances bill forcing ‘Uber’ cars on Hillsborough

TALLAHASSEE — State versus local control is at stake in an ongoing dispute in Tallahassee that pits the taxi cab industry against Uber, an app based hired-car service that’s trying to gain a foothold in Florida.

A bill filed earlier this year by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would have allowed services such as Uber to set up in cities across the state. The companies contract with independent drivers who have access to the company’s customer base. People use a smart phone to summon a car.

Uber has sparked political fights across the country as supporters and opponents hire teams of lobbyists to duke-it-out in state Legislatures and city halls.

“An Uber pain in my you know what,” quipped state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, speaking of the pressure Florida lawmakers are feeling over the issue.

Brandes’ bill, SB 1618, would prohibit local governments from licensing or regulating “chauffeured limousines, chauffeured limousine services, and drivers of chauffeured limousines.”

The St. Petersburg Republican amended his bill Thursday so that it now applies only to Hillsborough County — the one county in Florida that has a special district established to regulate taxis, limos, tow truck drivers and other transportation for hire. Hillsborough’s Public Transportation Commission is appointed by local government leaders.

In 2012, the commission blocked an attempt by Uber to offer service during the Republican National Convention, held in Tampa. Since then, the commission has refused to budge on minimum fare requirements, making the market unattractive to Uber with its varying rate schedule.

Earlier, some lawmakers moved to disband the commission over the Uber dispute but the effort died.

Brandes’ bill, with the Hillsborough-only amendment, passed the Senate Transportation Committee 7-2 but not before sparking a regional fight.

Some Tampa lawmakers didn’t want a bill that applies only to their region.

“I’m opposed to it, I’m from Hillsborough,” said state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. “My people are here, I’ve heard from them.”

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, said he was supporting the bill, drawing a quip from Joyner that Garcia made the decision because “it isn’t touching Miami-Dade.”

Brandes’ bill is now similar to a House version, also amended to apply only to Hillsborough County.

If the measure becomes law, the issue likely will return next year as app-based car hire companies try to expand into Florida’s other counties.

“We see that coming, and we see the world changing,” Lee said.

Another company, Lyft, started operations in Hillsborough last week, risking penalties from the Public Transportation Commission.

Supporters of companies like Uber and Lyft want statewide legislation passed so they don’t have to take their case to individual cities across the state. Opponents see the state Legislature trying to undercut their ability to create regulations that meet differing regional needs.

“They obviously thought it would be better to come to Tallahassee and do it all at one time, and that’s why I voted against it,” Joyner said.

Brandes said he does not want to hamstring an emerging technology that encourages entrepreneurs.

“We should encourage competition and we should allow the free market to take off in this area,” he said.

His bill has one more committee stop before headed to the full Senate. The House version, HB 1389, has passed its committee stops and is awaiting a vote before the full House.

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