State Sen. Bill Ferguson said his bill on regulating ridesharing companies like Uber presented a “simple question” to legislators. The hearing that unfolded over the next three hours showed that the path to getting the bill passed would be anything but easy.
For most of Tuesday afternoon in an Annapolis hearing room, members of the Maryland Senate Finance Committee heard testimony, asked questions, told Uber supporters waving signs to sit down and even admonished the company over their lobbying tactics.
Directly across from them, the people supplying testimony included suddenly-chummy officials from fiercely competing ridesharing and insurance companies, taxicab industry veterans pleading their case and regulators summing up more than two years of work.
All parties involved were considering SB 868. And even after hours of testimony, the bill’s fate remained unclear.
Whose lane is it?
The legislation, sponsored by Ferguson, would create a new regulatory framework for ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft that separates them from the taxi industry. Ferguson and Uber have framed the General Assembly’s role as answering the “ultimate policy question” about how the state should oversee the businesses.
Despite a year of back-and-forth, the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) and the ridesharing companies have been unable to agree on regulations.
“The movement that they have made over the last year requires them to take a square peg and fit it into a round hole,” Ferguson said of the PSC.
Still, the PSC continues to seek its own solution to regulating the companies. After a settlement over operations of Uber’s luxury services, the PSC proposed its latest set of regulations for all ridesharing companies in February. Unlike past proposals, the latest documents are designed for “Transprotation Network Services,” and acknowledge ridesharing-specific provisions like surge pricing. But Uber officials remain unconvinced that they are different from taxi regs, and have thrown in their lot with the legislation.
The PSC held rulemaking sessions to hash out those regulations on March 20 and 23, and members didn’t even get to insurance yet.
Surge of questions
PSC staff members were given a chance to weigh in on Tuesday, but the state senators on the committee saw themselves tasked with poring over the regulations on this occasion.
Sen. Edward R. Reilly asked Uber D.C. General Manger Zuhairah Washington and Lyft Government Relations Manager Katie Kincaid about company policies for insurance, inspections, background checks and customer privacy info. Amid the questions, Uber supporters in the room waved black signs supporting the company. But Reilly was in no mood. He threatened to vote against the bill if the boosting continued.
Sen. Dolores Kelley asked about the drivers’ independent contractor status, workers compensation and driver performance tracking.
One particularly long exchange came when Kelley asked whether the drivers carry guns, and the company policy toward firearms.
Uber’s Washington repeatedly maintained that the drivers are required to comply with gun laws of the states where they operate. But Kelley wanted an answer to the company’s rules on whether a driver could be armed.
“Without some transparency, it’s hard for us to know what do with the request that you have before us,” Kelley said.
State senators like Baltimore city’s Catherine Pugh and Brian Feldman did eventually wrestle with the question of whether the legislature should take up the regulations rather than the PSC.
“This is a pretty important, complicated issue. Why would we not want the General Assembly to be putting its fingerprint on this?” Feldman said.
Show of force
Amid all the legislative talk, there was also old-fashioned politics at work.
As indicated by the sign-waving supporters, Uber brought a show of force. The company staged a rally outside the Senate office building prior to the hearing, and a host of drivers and even one rider was onhand to speak.
“It allows me to get out of the house and do the things that I need to do,” said Aaliyah Sullivan, a frequent Lyft passenger from Oxon Hill in Prince George’s County near the D.C. line.
Meanwhile, the taxicab industry brought their own fleet of drivers and representatives to talk about why they weren’t in favor of regulations.
Baltimore city taxi owner Kuljit Singh said taxis have lost business because Uber has been able to undercut the market since they are not regulated.
“Every time we talk to drivers they keep telling us that their profits have been taken by UberX,” he said.
Aside from the questions that legislators posed, the bill’s procedural fate remains cloudy.
Since it was filed later in the session, a corresponding House version of the legislation has yet to be assigned a committee hearing. With the General Assembly’s “crossover date” — when the House and Senate notify each other which bills they will take up — approaching, Finance Committee Chair Thomas Middleton said he wasn’t inclined to pass it. But Ferguson said he talked to a House committee leader who said he would be willing to move the bill forward.
Middleton said he would have check into that himself, and later added that the bill would likely require work sessions for the finance committee to move through with the amount of specificity required.
Representatives from insurance companies such as State Farm, USAA and Farmers also showed at the hearing to voice support for amending language covering the ridesharing companies’ insurance.
As is customary, a vote was not immediately taken.
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