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Uber transportation bill starts rolling in house

(John R. Coughlin/CNN)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A revived proposal that would prevent local governments from regulating popular app-based transportation services, such as Uber and Lyft, picked up its first victory Wednesday in the Florida House.

However, the proposal (HB 509) -- opposed by taxi companies as unfair competition and by local governments as an infringement on local control -- must still find a way to connect with the Senate.

The House Highway and Waterway Safety Subcommittee voted 10-1 to support the heavily lobbied measure, with Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, calling cab companies a "virtual monopoly" that may need to be deregulated.

"Any cab companies that come in to my office, I would tell them, and I've done this before, 'Sell your cabs,' " said Rep. Irv Slosberg, a Boca Raton Democrat who called himself a "road safety warrior for the state of Florida."

"If you can't compete," Slosberg added, "either get your cabs to get on that Uber app, or else sell your cabs."

The proposal, which has not drawn a Senate companion bill, would set insurance requirements for transportation-service drivers while they are logged on, require prospective drivers to undergo criminal background checks and prohibit local governments from imposing their own rules on the app-based companies as they do now for taxi companies and limousine services.

"We don't want a circumstance where someone is wanting to comply with the law, and wanting to perform a transportation network service, and inadvertently crosses a county or municipal line and could become a criminal because he could have disparate insurance requirements or disparate registration requirements," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who is sponsoring the measure.

A problem for the tech-based industry has been getting many large cities and counties across Florida to establish regulations.

Eric Poole, assistant legislative director for the Florida Association of Counties, said local governments shouldn't be penalized for failing to establish rules for Uber and other companies as quick as backers of the new technology want.

"I think what you're seeing playing out at the local level is an attempt by the counties to balance the existing regulatory framework with this new technology," Poole said.

Former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, lobbying on behalf of the Florida Taxi Cab Association, said the goal isn't to bar Uber and other app-based rideshare services from Florida. However, she said lawmakers must avoid giving Uber and other app-based services an unfair advantage over taxis and limo services.

Also, she said, lawmakers must ensure that any regulation for the app-based providers can be enforced to reduce rogue or "gypsy" drivers.

"Whether they want to believe they do something different, they don't. They put people in a vehicle and take them somewhere from point A to point B for money," Bogdanoff said. "If this bill passes as is, there is no free market. Uber has an unfair advantage. Government has given them that unfair advantage. And taxis are still going to continue to struggle with regulation."

Among the issues for the cab companies is part of Gaetz' proposal that would require Uber and other app-based companies to pay annual fees of $5,000 to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Some cab companies pay more than $100,000 annually in fees with cities and counties.

"I don't think $5,000 is going to provide enforcement," Bogdanoff said. "If you're serious about some form of regulation, you have to put some teeth into the law."

The House and Senate could not reach agreement on a bill during the 2015 legislative session, with Gaetz and other House members seeking to pass a far-reaching measure.

Gaetz said he hopes to be able to "meld" his proposal into any Senate measures for the 2016 session, which starts Jan. 12. The Senate in the past has focused on establishing insurance requirements that address a "gap " period, which involves the time between when a driver is notified about a having a customer to pick up and the actual pickup.

Earlier this year, the Senate tried to advance a measure that would have set the minimum automobile liability insurance during a gap at $125,000 for death and bodily injury per person.

The Senate's gap coverage would have also required $250,000 for death and bodily injury per incident, and $50,000 for property damage, the same as for cabs and limos that are regulated by local governments.

The House proposal for the 2016 session has lower limits for the gap, with $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage.

The bill comes as taxicab companies in Broward County and Tallahassee have filed suit arguing that the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are allowing app-based transportation services to operate without proper insurance and oversight of passenger fares.

In October, attorneys for the state agencies asked a Leon County circuit judge to dismiss the suits.