Legislation that would allow the agriculture commissioner to regulate Uber, Lyft and similar taxi services advanced to the House floor without objection Wednesday.

The House & Governmental Affairs Committee approved House Bill 527, which would authorize the state, solely, to regulate the transportation network companies that use occasional drivers to take riders where they want to go. Under the measure, the state would collect 1 percent of the services' gross receipts, most of which would then be returned to local governments where the rides took place.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, who sponsored HB527, said the new industry that relies on smart phones to connect drivers and riders needs uniform, statewide regulations rather than the "patchwork" of rules in effect now through ordinances in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other places.

Nick Juliano, who handles policy for Uber in the Southeast, said 42 states have rules like those in the bill, and implementing them in Louisiana would help spread the ride-hailing services throughout the state. “The rules and regulations vary from city to city, parish to parish and that means middle class folks trying to earn extra money on the Uber/Lyft platform, they’re not able to do it because of conflicting regulations,” he said.

Under HB527, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry would have oversight powers and prohibit local government, special districts, airport authorities and other entities from imposing taxes or licensure requirements on the transportation network companies starting on July 1. Existing local ordinances would be superseded.

But the legislation also limits regulatory and public access to company records – not only for trade data, but the names of drivers and trip information. The companies would keep the records for one year, under the terms of the legislation, and allow regulators to physically inspect a portion of the data at an agreed upon location.

Sami Naim, public policy manager for Lyft, said these companies differ from traditional taxicabs because their drivers usually work occasionally to pick up a few extra dollars, whereas cabbies operate full time. The transportation network industry is data sensitive and information about numbers trips, when and where pickups are made, could be used by a competitors to reallocate resources, he said.

Local government and the Louisiana Press Association noted that the bill allows the companies to skirt the state’s open records laws.

“This bill has the effect of closing records that the LPA believe should be open,” said Scott L. Sternberg, a lawyer for the Louisiana Press Association. Journalists use the information to ensure that government regulators are doing their jobs adequately.

New Orleans Advocate Managing Editor Martha Carr asked the committee why a few select companies should be allowed to keep secret records that would help ensure passenger safety and fair business practices.

Even local governments also wouldn’t have access to the records. Sure, the companies would send checks for amounts they calculate. “But we have no way of knowing if that’s accurate,” argued Rodney Braxton, who lobbies for the City of New Orleans.

The Louisiana Public Service Commission regulates taxis, limousines and other conveyances operating within the state. Much of the information that the companies wants to keep secret is posted on the PSC website for private taxicab companies, such as the names of cab drivers. The PSC, which also oversees electric bills, gathers business information that impact rates from utility companies and other businesses it regulates. 

Havard told The Advocate the difference is that Uber and Lyft are private companies, so such information should be confidential. He said the agriculture commissioner was chosen to regulate because that department checks the accuracy of the meters that cabbies use to determine how much a particular ride costs.

 

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.