The month of May just got a lot more interesting.
Let the people choose how to regulate Uber and Lyft, a divided Austin City Council decided late Thursday.
The council, on a 2-8-1 vote, declined to adopt an ordinance underlying a petition drive that organizers said gathered more than 65,000 signatures. Under city rules about petition initiatives, that means that the city must hold an election on that ordinance May 7.
Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ellen Troxclair voted to adopt the ordinance, put forward through the petition drive earlier this year. Council Member Don Zimmerman, although he supports the ordinance and signed the petition, abstained. The election, the Austin city clerk estimated, will cost the city between $500,000 and $900,000, depending on whether some local school districts choose to hold elections at the same time.
The choice in May for voters will be between the petition ordinance, similar to Austin’s ride-hailing law that has been in place since October 2014, or, in effect, one passed by the City Council in December that in a year’s time would require virtually all drivers for Lyft and Uber to have passed fingerprint-based criminal background checks. The petition ordinance specifically says that drivers will not be subject to fingerprinting, instead undergoing the company background checks that are based on identifying documents like driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers.
The choice also, if the companies are to be believed, will be between having or not having Uber and Lyft operating in Austin. That would leave only GetMe, a small Austin-based company new to the peer-to-peer transportation business, to offer app-based rides here. That company has said it will abide by the city’s December law, which will go into effect Feb. 28.
A “yes” vote by the public May 7 would wipe out that ordinance.
“It’s going to be an expensive fight,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director of Public Citizen in Austin. “But sometimes you have to stand up to the bullies.”
The council, on a 4-7 vote, also rejected an alternative ordinance put forward by Mayor Steve Adler that would have been similar to petition ordinance, but would have required transportation network companies to pay the city 2 percent of its annual revenues to fund an incentive program for drivers to be fingerprinted.
See here and here for the background. Given all the noise that Uber and to a somewhat lesser extent Lyft are making in other cities that have tried to pass ordinances that regulate vehicles for hire, even ones that didn’t require fingerprints, this election is going to set a precedent. If Uber and Lyft get what they want in Austin, I feel confident they’ll try to do the same in other cities. If not, I don’t expect them to stop trying, but they’ll have to rethink their approach. Either way, the case for statewide regulation, in particular statewide regulation that requires fingerprint checks, takes another step forward.