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Austin Uber referendum update

There’s still a crapload of money being spent by Uber and Lyft to win this thing.

Uber

In the last month, Ridesharing Works for Austin – the PAC established by transportation network companies Uber and Lyft – raised $4.9 million and spent $4.6 million promoting Prop. 1, the TNC-supported ride-hailing ordinance. With another million in the pipeline, that brings to $8.1 million the TNC’s intend to spend for the May 7 election.

That was the headline news contained in Friday’s “8-day-out” reports filed with the Austin City Clerk. By contrast, Prop. 1 opposition group Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice raised $88,000 over the last month (spending $68,000), bringing the group’s fundraising to $100,000 for the campaign thus far.

According to the Austin American-Statesman, RWA reported an additional $1 million contribution from Uber just before the filing deadline, for a total of $8.1 million. In case your calculator is overheated, that’s more than an 80 to 1 advantage to the Uber and Lyft resources, and a staggering record for money spent in an Austin city election – the previous standard was $1.2 million spent by Mayor Steve Adler in his 2014 campaign. Even the generally stoic Statesman transportation reporter Ben Wear began a Friday Tweet on the Uber and Lyft spending, “Mother of God” and ended: “Mind=boggled.”

Click over to see details on how all that money was sloshed around. I’d have to go back and do the math, but $8.1 million rivals what all of Houston’s Mayoral candidates raised last year; it’s almost certainly more if you take out self-funding. To put it mildly, that’s an awful lot of money to spend on a local election. But of course, it’s not just about Austin.

Lyft

Let’s put that figure in context. Not only is $8.1 million nearly seven times the most expensive municipal election in Austin’s history—the 2014 campaign of Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who set a new benchmark in political spending just two years ago—but it’s also over a million dollars more than Ted Cruz spent in his 2012 Senate campaign to beat then-Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. This is where we are with Prop 1, a municipal election about a very narrowly tailored piece of the city code that applies strictly to ridesharing services is costing more than a successful U.S. Senate campaign.

That is, er, friggin’ crazy, but it also helps reveal the stakes here. That money could certainly pay for a whole lot of fingerprint background checks that Uber and Lyft say are such an onerous burden (202,500 of them, to be exact, at $40 a pop), but it’s not really about whether fingerprinting is too expensive of a process to keep Uber and Lyft profitable. The campaign, ultimately, is a matter of principle for the companies—and they’re not just spending the money to win in Austin, they’re spending the money to show other cities considering similar regulations that they’re in it to win it.

The “yes on Prop 1” forces—that is, the Uber and Lyft side of the battle—have outspent their opponents at a rate of 81:1. (That crushes the argument that the regulations were initially passed by city council as the result of campaign contributions from the taxi lobby—if Austin’s city council was bought and paid for for a few grand, Uber and Lyft clearly slept on a great chance for bargain shopping.) That’s a huge amount for an election in Austin, but it could be worth it to send a message to Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Denver, and other cities contemplating a fingerprinting requirement that this isn’t a fight worth picking.

The fact that the fight over Prop 1 isn’t strictly about Austin is clear in other ways too. Opponents of the recall campaign note that, when fingerprinting requirements went into effect in Houston, Uber continued to operate in that city. So if they didn’t follow through in Houston, why would Austin be any different? That argument is harder to make now than it was just a week ago: Uber announced on Wednesday that it was considering leaving Houston if the fingerprint regulations there aren’t overturned. That threat comes without a specific timetable, but the timing of the announcement—just as the “Uber will leave Austin if the regulation passes” argument needed some more urgency—suggests that the strategy here is a lot more than local.

All of that is fascinating, but ultimately, the expenditures, lobbying, messaging, and gamesmanship at work here are only part of the puzzle. Is all of this enough to get people to actually vote?

Early voting totals have been quite robust in Austin. As the TM Daily Post notes, given the unanimous opposition to Prop 1 among the reliable-voter factions, some of that money Uber and Lyft have spent has been to bring out the less-likely voters, whom they hope are in their corner. They’re getting the turnout; whether those voters are indeed on their side, and if there’s enough of them, remains to be seen. Whatever happens in Austin, Houston is next in the spotlight. The Chron urges Mayor Turner to stand strong.

For too long, Houston’s ride-for-hire business was dominated by a taxi cartel that used restrictive ordinances to keep out competition. Uber’s arrival smashed that status quo and brought Houstonians a quicker, cleaner and cheaper free-market alternative to rickety taxis.

Sure, Uber willfully disobeyed local laws and used every trick in the book to put political pressure on City Hall, but it was worth it so that Houstonians wouldn’t have to wait two hours to learn that a cab wasn’t coming. In the end, City Hall hammered out a deal to remove the regulatory barriers that prohibited Uber from entering the market.

But apparently that wasn’t enough. Now, as Turner and council tackle a budget crisis, a pension mess and all the fallout of recent floods, Uber expects them to drop everything and put its bizarrely specific pet issue on the immediate agenda.

Don’t let them take you on a ride, Mayor Turner. Don’t give in to their threats.

In the world of political carrots and sticks, Uber deserves a good bop on the nose for its tone-deaf and entitled attitude towards our city.

As I said before, that will be easier to do if the Austin referendum goes down. I’ll post results on Sunday.

Finally, I received the following press release from Uber in my mailbox yesterday morning:

As the Houston City Council considers revising the City’s ridesharing ordinance, a poll commissioned by Uber indicates that the vast majority of Houstonians support modernizing the outdated rules.

In the past nine months, a growing number of Texas cities have adopted new ridesharing regulations that uphold strong safety standards while also preserving economic opportunity for Texans. According to a survey conducted by We Ask America, 73 percent of Houstonians support changing the rules to make them more in line with the rest of the state.

The poll also revealed that 72 percent of Houstonians believe people are less likely to drink and drive since Uber and other ridesharing services launched.

The survey was conducted of 1,015 likely voters in Houston using live interviewers from both landlines and cellphones. The margin of error was ±3.0 percent.

Sounds impressive! Here’s a copy of the basic poll data. The question about changing the ordinance reads thusly:

Houston has more regulations on ridesharing services than any other city in Texas, which has forced some companies to cease operations. Would you support the City of Houston adopting new rules that are more like other Texas cities to increase access to safe rides?


Response           Percentage

Supports changing      72.51%

Oppose changing        12.81%

Not sure               14.68%

Crosstabs are here. I daresay that one could garner a different percentage with an alternate but equally accurate question about the issue. It’s a good starting point for Uber, but it’s just that, a starting point. How the issue is presented matters greatly, and it’s why I called the forthcoming fight over Uber and Houston’s current ordinance a public relations fight. The side that gets to define the question to be answered is the side that will win. BOR has more.

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2 Comments

  1. voter_worker says:

    I’m mildly surprised that the Texas-California cultural divide is not in play here. The Guardian just ran this piece about “Further Future”, a hybrid business/music party recently held in the desert near Las Vegas and attended by luminaries of the tech world. I didn’t see any mention of Uber executives, but I’d be willing to bet a Tubman or two that they were represented. It’s not a stretch to conclude that there is a vast gulf in worldviews between the tech executives and the elected mayors and councilmembers who are 2/3 of the players in this fracas. The other third, the voters? Targets for über-slick advertising it would seem. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/may/02/further-future-festival-burning-man-tech-elite-eric-schmidt

  2. Joshua ben bullard says:

    As I have stated before ,and kuffner ignores ,the city voters of Austin are going to blow government out of doing finegerprints,at over 71% of the vote-again people naturally feel like they have been robbed for years when hired transportation drops 60% over night,they are in forgiven with their vote -let me brake it down for kuffner.when people find out that when they entrusted local government and local government took millions in campaign contributions just like Houston city council members receive and Mayor Turner they get mad and angry at big government and they vote government out of that area.in lay terms ,you can’t rip people off for years and expect them to sleep with you ,ever again,Austin gov is done.Now on to Houston and you keep skipping over the meat on the bone kuffner,there is a man-one man and Sylvester Turner allows him to own the rights of 2000 drivers ability to work,if you don’t pay him for that right then turner will tow your car-houston never regulated taxi medallion owners lease rate so that means (no one was minding the store) so all of Houston just had to take it up the ol ******.if the mayor would eliminate market entry limits for taxis,just like he does for uber then Houston wouldn’t be in this mess.one more time ,abolish the “market entry limits” across the board,then equal for all,tell Turner to stop taking the campaign contributions from big taxi before the FBI starts asking questions and eliminate right to labor fees in Houston ,just like Dallas ,DC,San Diego ,etc etc etc Houston had the most corrupt monopolized taxi entry market in the world.