Published 5:02 pm Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A bill that would set statewide standards for the operation of ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft received approval in the Senate on Wednesday. Officially known as transportation network companies, these businesses have become popular in the era of smart phones and allow consumers to order rides on demand from TNC contractors through apps on their phones. These companies are regulated on a city-by-city basis today, but Georgetown Senator Charles Schwertner offered a bill that would make the state the only regulator of ridesharing in Texas.

Major TNCs have clashed with cities over local ordinances, particularly over requirements to fingerprint drivers. Uber and Lyft still operate in Houston and San Antonio, where fingerprinting is required, but left Austin in 2016 after voters there approved similar standards. Other major cities, like Dallas, Fort Worth, and El Paso don’t require driver fingerprints. It’s this inconsistent patchwork of regulations that’s the problem, said Schwertner. “Regulating these services at the city level will always be challenging for the simple fact that people don’t live, work or play in only one city,” he said. “Transportation, by its very nature, is a regional concern that routinely crosses municipal boundaries.” Schwertner added that 40 other states already regulate ride sharing at the state level.

Under his bill, HB 100, local ordinances already in place would be preempted by state regulations, meaning TNCs wouldn’t be required to fingerprint drivers in any city. The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation would oversee TNCs and would have the power to revoke licenses to operate in the state if the businesses don’t comply with state rules. The bill includes a number of provisions aimed at protecting customers.   It would require that ride sharing drivers undergo a yearly criminal background check, not be on the sex offender registry, and carry auto insurance. All TNCs would have to provide an electronic receipt to customers, and would have to maintain records for all rides within the past five years.

The bill would specifically prohibit discrimination based on disabilities, and would require licensed TNCs to implement pilot programs in one of the four largest cities in the state specifically to serve customers with disabilities.

Schwertner told members he believes regulating TNCs under one set of rules at the state level is a win for both consumers and business. “HB 100 guarantees that all Texans have the freedom to move across Texas safely and independently,” he said. “This bill provides a conservative, common sense framework that would be good for passengers, good for drivers and good for the free market.” The measure now heads to the Governor for his signature.

Receiving tentative approval Wednesday was a bill to end straight ticket single-party voting in Texas.   Texas is one of only ten states that still allow the practice, and North Richland Hills Senator Kelly Hancock says that eliminating straight ticket voting would lead to a more informed electorate. “House Bill 25 will help voters learn and evaluate candidates as individuals,” he said. “This legislation will prompt voters to be better informed as they cast their votes.” Some Senators raised concerns that removing the option could lead to longer lines at the polls and might actually discourage turnout. Senator Sylvia Garcia said she believes this will be a particular problem in her home county of Harris. “When you’re talking about having to go through over a hundred names in over a thousand precincts in my county… that’s going to create longer lines and more waiting,” she said. The bill will have to face another, final vote, likely later in the week.

The Senate will reconvene Thursday, May 18 at 11 a.m.