Sunday, April 23, 2017

Kenner Council Punts Zahn/Sigur Uber Money Grab

If you’ve read this blog before or if you’re unfortunate enough to actually know me, you know that I’m a “Limited Government” guy. I firmly believe that the less government involvement in my life, the better.

So, when I learned months ago that the Kenner City Council was discussing an ordinance to regulate Uber, Lyft and other Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), I was torn.

On the one hand, Kenner has been behind in the regulation and oversight of companies like Uber and Lyft and, yes, I believe that they should be regulated. While on the surface Uber and Lyft (and their accommodation companions like AirBNB) are primarily middlemen connecting consumers to individuals offering their personal items and time for a fee, TNCs are essentially providing vehicles for hire (albeit without the cost of owning their fleet, local licensing and other regulations faced by other “Vehicles for Hire” companies like Taxicabs or Limo Companies).

As a “Vehicle for Hire” company, a term that the TNCs distance themselves from, I believe that Uber, Lyft and others should face the same licensing, insurance and other regulations (and fees) that burden Taxi and Limo Companies especially regarding public safety issues like criminal background checks, drug tests, and licensing.
If there are going to be regulations, there needs to be regulations for all companies in an industry. The playing field must be level.

On the other hand, while Kenner was way behind in regulating Uber and Lyft, I really didn’t want Mental Midgets like Lyin’ Ben Zahn, Lenny Cline, Mike Sigur and others involved in regulating anything related to the economy and certainly not the New Economy. Remember this is the group that decided that Kenner shouldn’t allow boat owners to park their boats in their driveways before boat owners rebelled forcing Sigur, Cline and the minions to take a step back for a year.  

I mean, let’s get real: Lenny Cline couldn’t form a three-person committee to study TNCs (with himself as one of the three) without screwing it up; the duplicitous, ethically-challenged Sigur, while professing the proposed ordinance was about “Public Safety”, simply saw Dollar Sign$ and money from new fees pouring into Kenner; and Lyin’ Ben isn’t qualified to write a grocery list let alone an ordinance impacting the future of transportation.

And, if it wasn’t a money grab, why only limit the fees to rides picked up at the Airport, since there are no other “Transportation Facilities” in Kenner?

I know that Lyin’ Ben keeps professing to have had little to do with the ordinance but his money-grubbing fingerprints were all over the legislation (as were the obvious errors in the proposed legislation that would have landed Kenner in court for years).

On more than one occasion, Zahn publicly stated that doing anything – even attaching a small fee like $.50 per Uber trip, would be “something”.

Yes Lyin’ Ben, it would be “something” – more shekels for the Kenner Treasury. Adding a fee would amount to nothing, I repeat nothing Mr. Sigur, for the public safety of consumers using TNCs or for other drivers navigating Kenner’s roads.

The truth is, I’m sure Uber and Lyft would much prefer a $.50 fee than the $4+ fees proposed by Kenner.  But, $6 per passenger for Airport Shuttles? Who on the Kenner City Council didn’t communicate with the shuttle company and learn that they are under a bid contract and can’t increase their fees to accommodate the Zahn/Sigur money grab?  

So, after months of debate (and wasted time), the Kenner City Council finally indefinitely deferred their TNC ordinance.  

At Thursday’s Kenner City Council meeting, the rationale for deferring the ordinance was pending State legislation, including a proposed bill by newly-elected District 92 State Rep Joe Stagni, would soon supplant any City legislation.

Stagni is a former Kenner City Councilman and his House District includes a significant portion of Kenner.  

At the meeting, Lyin’ Ben said he spoke with Rep Stagni several times regarding TNCs and would continue lobbying Stagni, Rep Julie Stokes (whose District includes the Northern section of Kenner) and others to get a bill passed that would benefit Kenner.

There is also a proposed bill by Republican District 62 Rep Kenny Havard regarding TNCs. Havard’s district includes portions of East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana and West Feliciana parishes. I could take a cheap shot and ask, who knew that Uber was even available in East and West Feliciana, but that would be too easy.

But, if neither bill passes and isn’t signed into law, Kenner will be back where they are now – without any regulations regarding TNCs and, even if one of the two bills does pass, it will be months before the legislation will take effect which, again, leaves TNCs unregulated in Kenner.

That being said, while both bills impose a lower fee on TNCs than the Zahn/Sigur Money Grab, is either bill good for Kenner, public safety and consumers?

Not in their current forms.

Rep Havard’s bill, HB 527, while more comprehensive than Rep Stagni’s HB 672, has some very clear holes in it.

Havard’s bill imposes a 1% “local assessment fee” compared to Stagni’s $.25 per trip fee.

By his own admission, Rep Stagni’s bill is “not complete” and simply assesses a $.25 fee per TNC trip. Currently, the money collected under Stagni’s bill goes to the State Highway fund.

But, let’s talk about what neither bill includes.

Neither bill provides regulation regarding  "Dynamic" or “Surge pricing”. “Surge pricing” is when Uber/Lyft significantly increases their fees for very high demand usage like fleeing a natural disaster or even special events like JazzFest. Complaints about “surge pricing” (essentially price-gouging) have been rampant regarding Uber for years. In 2014, Austin (TX) residents complained about paying almost $300 for an 11-mile ride home during Halloween. The normal fare would have been less than $20.
Uber also faced numerous complaints regarding "Surge pricing" from residents fleeing Hurricane Sandy.
“Dynamic Pricing” indeed.

Neither bill requires Uber/Lyft drivers to obtain a chauffer’s license or Commercial Driver’s License (CDL). If you’re hauling people or making deliveries, even if part-time, you should be required to have more than a simple Driver’s License.

Neither bill mandates minimum insurance requirements for drivers other than normal state minimums. As Uber/Lyft drivers are independent contractors, they may or may not be covered in Louisiana by the TNC’s blanket insurance policy, and they clearly do not have commercial insurance coverage.

While Havard’s bill addresses service animals, neither bill adequately includes provisions for disabled riders or accessibility that remotely meets ADA guidelines. In 2014, a lawsuit was filed in California alleging Uber denied service to blind passengers. In the suit, it was alleged that an Uber driver put the service dog of a blind passenger in the trunk of his vehicle.

Neither bill mandates that TNC drivers or their vehicles be licensed in Louisiana.

Neither bill mandates that TNC drivers possess local occupational licenses. If TNC drivers are “Independent Contractors” as defined in Havard’s bill, a local occupational license should be required. An occupational license is required for Uber drivers in many cities including San Francisco, where Uber is headquartered.

Labeling TNC drivers as “Independent Contractors” has also been a legal bone of contention both among several States and the Federal government and many TNC drivers themselves.
The California Labor Commissioner's Office ruled that a former Uber driver was indeed an "employee". A Florida ruling granted a former Uber driver unemployment benefits.
Uber has vigorously fought the "Employee" designation which would make the company liable for collecting employment taxes and subject them to additional regulations.

Neither bill mandates that TNC vehicles are subjected to the same inspections as Taxis. In many cities, TNC vehicles are required to have annual comprehensive safety inspections, not simply a brake tag.

While Havard’s bill discusses a “Zero Tolerance Policy” regarding allegations of driving while intoxicated and imposes a driver suspension if there is an allegation, it does not preclude the TNC driver from simply joining a different TNC and continuing to operate.

Havard’s bill states that TNC drivers are required to complete a background check by the company but doesn’t specifically require a fingerprint background scan. Fingerprint scans are required for TNC drivers in New York City (the same as Taxi drivers) and Houston and are considered significantly more reliable than other background checks.  Uber shuttered operations in Austin, TX, after voters there defeated a proposal to allow Uber to continue using only the company-mandated background checks.  

Havard’s bill also curiously states that “a TNC or TNC driver is not a common carrier, contract carrier, or motor carrier, does not provide taxi or for-hire vehicle service, and is not required to register the TNC vehicle as a commercial motor vehicle or for-hire vehicle.”


If an Uber/Lyft driver is not a “vehicle for hire”, what are they?

If you are moving a passenger or goods from point A to point B, and you're not a delivery or taxi company, what does that make you? Essentially, a non-regulated Taxi.

If you think that I’m anti-Uber or pro-Taxi, you would be mistaken. In fact, I’m not even anti the Kenner City Council. We need the Kenner City Council and Lyin’ Ben the Mayor to continue to remind us what truly inept government is.

Since I’m feeling generous, I will throw the Kenner City Council a bone – a Taxi related issue that they can actually fix (if they have the intestinal fortitude, which is debatable).

Four years ago, when I was on the Kenner Code Advisory Committee, we spent hours debating multiple vehicles parked in front of houses and commercial vehicles (including Taxis) parked in residential areas.

There are examples all over Kenner (including several in District 2, Councilman Sigur’s District) of 3 or more Taxi cabs parked in front of a residence. This is truly a public safety issue and one that could be easily rectified.

Driving down a narrow street and seeing multiple Taxi cabs parked on the street is both an eyesore and a safety hazard (certainly much more of both than someone’s boat parked in their driveway).

Back then, after several meetings and hours of debate, it became apparent that the political appointees of then-Mayor Mike Yenni wouldn’t let the rest of the committee proceed regarding recommendations for establishing rules regarding multiple commercial vehicles operating out of a residence.

Within the committee, we speculated that Kenner Taxi drivers/owners might have stopped the process by going directly to Yenni. That was never able to be proven and I was asked to resign from the Committee when I qualified to run for Mayor  against Yenni (although I’ve yet to see the legal precedent for that request, I’m sure Keith Conley would whip up some legal nonsense to prove his point).

Commercial vehicles should not be parked overnight on the street in residential areas.
Again, a problem that is easily fixable.

Who said that  I wasn’t “solutions oriented”?  

Since Kenner clearly has been either unable or unwilling to adequately protect consumers and drivers, while providing a level, competitive playing field for TNCs and Taxi, Limo and Shuttle companies, let’s hope that either Rep Havard or Stagni amend their bills to include specific regulations that can benefit us and not just large companies like Uber and Lyft.

It would also help if any legislation were more than just a money grab.

We have enough of that in Louisiana (and Kenner) as it is.