The Buzz

Police pan bill to exempt Uber and taxis from local regulations at Missouri Senate hearing

Uber and similar services use smartphone apps to link people wanting a ride to private drivers who are willing to drive them. The passengers pay a fee to the ride-hailing service, which then pays the drivers.
Uber and similar services use smartphone apps to link people wanting a ride to private drivers who are willing to drive them. The passengers pay a fee to the ride-hailing service, which then pays the drivers. File photo

A Senate committee on Tuesday heard from St. Louis area police who believe doing away with local oversight of vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber would put public safety at risk.

Meantime, officials from Uber announced Wednesday that being exempt from local regulations would allow the company to recruit 10,000 new drivers in Missouri over the next year as the service expands to four cities across the state.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would create a statewide regulatory system for vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft. It would also allow taxi companies to opt out of any local regulations that are currently in place and instead follow the same looser set of statewide standards applied to Uber and Lyft.

Those statewide standards call for transportation companies to apply for an annual permit from the Missouri Department or Revenue to do business within the state. It would then be up to the companies to maintain proper insurance and hire a third party to perform background checks on drivers.

Taxi companies were originally excluded from the more lax regulations, but were added to the legislation in order to win their support.

“Flexible, work-on-demand like the kind Uber and other similar companies provide can be a game-changer,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican sponsoring the measure. “An extra couple hundred or a thousand bucks a month can be the difference between paying all the bills or slipping into debt.”

Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told a Senate committee Tuesday that the background checks mandated in the legislation aren’t enough because they don’t rely on fingerprints that would be run through the National Crime Information Center.

Fitch became a member of the St. Louis Taxi Commission earlier this year. That panel has long been involved in heated legal wrangling with Uber over local vehicle-for-hire regulations, most notably whether drivers should undergo fingerprint background checks.

Fitch’s position was echoed by Jeff Roorda, a former Democratic state lawmaker who on Tuesday was representing a St. Louis-area chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

“This is not a vehicle-for-hire bill,” Roorda said. “It’s a public safety bill, and it’s a bad one.”

Sagar Shah, Uber’s Missouri general manager, said Wednesday that under the legislation, the company would ensure each driver passes a criminal background check and has a safe driving record. Additionally, things such as GPS tracking of all drivers and a two-way rating system provide another layer of safety for passengers.

“The reality is, no background check in the world is perfect and there are certainly flaws in every system,” he said. “That’s why we’ve heavily invested in technology to think about safety beyond just a background check.”

Last April, Uber and Kansas City officials announced a deal on a set of regulations that would allow the San Francisco-based company to continue to operate in the city. Those regulations included mandates that drivers purchase a vehicle license from the city, as well as provide city regulators with proof that they passed a background check, have proper insurance and are legally able to work in the country.

By January, Uber officials declared the agreement unworkable and hired 11 lobbyists to push for statewide regulations in Jefferson City.

Lyft, another vehicle-for-hire company based in San Francisco that doesn’t currently operate in Missouri, joined in the legislative effort this year and hired three lobbyists.

The bill in question was debated Tuesday by the Senate Small Business, Insurance and Industry Committee. If it wins committee approval, it needs only one more vote in the Senate before it would go back to the House, which could either send it to Gov. Jay Nixon or request a conference committee to work out differences.