Rep. Kevin Engler believes the state legislature should stop local governments in Missouri from regulating vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft.
The St. Francois County Republican has already voted for the idea several times this year.
But the General Assembly is constitutionally mandated to adjourn on Friday, and the bill has stalled in the Senate. So Uber’s legislative backers have begun the well-worn path of attaching the legislation as an amendment to any Senate bills where it might fit in the hopes of outflanking opposition.
It’s already attached to a pair of Senate bills, with amendments pending on five more.
And that strategy has Engler concerned.
“It doesn’t look like it stands much chance in the Senate,” he said, “so it becomes a poison pill that might kill other bills that are good law.”
The issue of how to regulate companies like Uber has percolated throughout the 2016 session, pitting against one another Kansas City leaders who say local laws are needed to ensure passenger safety and Republican legislative leaders who say burdensome regulations are stifling the growth of a company that wants to expand in Missouri.
Uber, which has its headquarters in San Francisco, hired 13 lobbyists to make its case in Jefferson City. Lyft, a rival vehicle-for-hire company also based in San Francisco, joined the effort by hiring three lobbyists of its own.
The companies have the support of Missouri House leaders, who have pointed to the legislation as a priority going into the session’s final days.
“We’re going to keep pushing this until we run out of time,” said Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican. “Right now, this is my number one priority.”
The problem for proponents is that they keep running into the same stumbling block: lawmakers who say they can’t support the bill unless vehicle-for-hire drivers are subjected to fingerprint-based FBI criminal background checks.
Uber has opposed that requirement, announcing this week that it is pulling out of Austin, Texas, because voters upheld a local ordinance requiring fingerprint background checks.
The company says its background checks are thorough and the fingerprint check is too burdensome for its drivers, most of whom work only a few hours a week. Additionally, the company says things such as GPS tracking of all drivers and a two-way rating system provide another layer of safety for passengers.
“Uber is tired of doing battle with municipalities every time they want to move to a new market,” Haahr said. “And Lyft isn’t operating in Missouri at all right now. I don’t know if Uber would leave Missouri, but if we don’t pass this bill I don’t foresee Lyft coming. And Uber could leave Kansas City.”
Threats like that are part of the problem, said Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican.
“Uber wants to do business, but they only want to do it on their terms,” Corlew said. “I want these companies to do business in Missouri. I want them to do business in Kansas City. But the public wants us to make sure we’ve done everything we can to vet the drivers properly and ensure the public will be safe.”
Under the House-backed legislation, a vehicle-for-hire company would no longer have to purchase vehicle licenses from Kansas City regulators, and individual drivers wouldn’t need to acquire a certificate from the city proving they passed a background check, have proper insurance and are legally able to work in the country.
Instead, Uber and Lyft would have to pay $5,000 for an annual permit from the Missouri Department or Revenue to do business within the state. The companies would have to perform background checks on drivers, maintain proper insurance and ensure each driver has a clean driving record, although critics say it’s unclear whether the Department of Revenue would be able to enforce these provisions if they became law.
The bill also allows taxi companies to opt out of local regulations and instead comply with the less stringent statewide standards applied to vehicle-for-hire companies.
The House approved the legislation earlier in the year, but it’s become mired in gridlock in the Senate. In recent days, the measure has been attached to two Senate bills, including one pertaining to Missouri ports.
Five other bills have Uber amendments pending, including one that implements insurance standards for vehicle-for-hire companies. Engler said that as chairman of the insurance committee he was supposed to handle that bill on the House floor.
But in a sign of how important the the Uber regulatory bill is to House leadership, “they took the (insurance) bill away from me,” Engler said. “I wanted to pass the bill clean without any amendment being added. So they gave it to someone who would support the amendment. I’m not complaining. I just think the amendment will kill it in the Senate.”
Haahr, who is currently carrying the bill in the House, said Engler was never supposed to handle the legislation.
The idea’s chances going forward depend on House leaders figuring out a way to soothe the concerns of a handful of skeptical Missouri senators.
“If my wife is going to be picked up by an Uber driver at night, I want to make sure she’s safe,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.
For him to allow the bill to move forward, Holsman said it would have to require fingerprint background checks of all drivers and mandate those drivers get a commercial license to operate their vehicle in Missouri, “just like people who drive taxis or limos.”
Haahr called opponents’ insistence that the bill mandate fingerprint background checks “absurd.” No other states that have statewide regulations require fingerprint background checks, he said, and neither does Kansas City.
“It’s disingenuous to bring up the fingerprint issue when Kansas City doesn’t mandate that of taxi drivers,” Haahr said.
Bill George, CEO of Kansas City Transportation Group, said it’s Haahr who is being disingenuous.
“You can’t get a license in Kansas City to drive a taxi unless you pass a background check and complete an in-person interview with the city,” said George, whose company runs Yellow Cab and other taxi services in the city. “If a driver wants to work at (Kansas City International Airport), they have to pass a fingerprint background check, and that’s 90 percent of our drivers.”
George said he would have no problem if Kansas City mandated fingerprint background checks for all taxi drivers.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” he said.
To try to win over critics, Haahr included in the latest version of the bill a provision that would allow the state to mandate fingerprint background checks on Uber drivers, but not until 2019. He said he briefly flirted with the idea of carving Kansas City out of the bill entirely, but ultimately the notion was abandoned.
Critics remain undeterred.
Mayor Sly James of Kansas City called Haahr’s latest proposal regarding fingerprint background checks “laughable,” saying lawmakers should establish regulations that ensure safety instead of “focusing on protecting profit margins” of vehicle-for-hire companies.
With only days left to get a deal done, Uber and its legislative backers are running out of time.
“Missouri is out of step with most of the rest of the nation,” said Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Uber, noting that 30 states have approved regulations similar to what’s being proposed in Missouri. “We’re hopeful legislators will get the job done and enact modern regulations to allow ride sharing to grow and thrive.”