New Bills Introduced to Strip Houston’s Ability to Regulate Uber
Houston occupies an exceptionally unique space within the Uber universe, in that it is one of only two cities that requires the company to fingerprint its drivers for background checks. It’s a sore subject for both the city and Uber and has remained a point of contention for awhile, most recently surrounding service during the Super Bowl. With a stranglehold on the transportation market for such a massive event, Uber pushed the city to drop drug screenings and physicals as part of the application process back in November. Now, with several bills introduced in the Texas Legislature, they’re pushing to remove the city’s ability to regulate the company at all — or any Texas municipality for that matter.
Senate Bill 361 stipulates that a transportation network company such as Uber “may not be regulated by a municipality, state agency, or other state or local entity.” Regulations include “requiring a license” and “imposing other requirements.” Essentially, Uber wants to operate on its own terms, without any municipal regulation, including Houston’s fingerprinting requirements. House Bill 100 would move permitting to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which not only has no office located in Houston, but has just one office in the entire state, inconveniently located in Austin where neither Uber or Lyft even operate. To expect an agency such as this to regulate the thousands of Texas Uber drivers — all living outside of the city it exists in — is untenable. The final day a state bill can either be approved or vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott is June 18, although movement on the bills is likely by late May.
Uber’s issues with Houston’s fingerprinting requirement are questionable at best. Arguments include that the requirement is unfair, unreliable and could discourage potential drivers. The reality is that the process takes about 10 minutes and costs around $40. Companies like Uber and Lyft insist that their own background checks, conducted by private contractors, are just as efficient, although law enforcement agencies would beg to differ.
Enter Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner last week. “Half the people who are coming to be drivers for Uber have some form of criminal record — one-half the people applying,” Turner said in reference to Houston Uber applicants. Uber’s public affairs lead for Texas, Trevor Theunissen, disputed the figure, stating that “the FBI fingerprinting database is widely reported to be inaccurate the majority of the time,” continuing that “we do have a fundamental disagreement on how to keep people safe.”
“We would continue to work with Mayor Turner, but our hope is that a statewide bill will pass this session so that we can stay in Houston,” Theunissen said. Once again, Uber is passively threatening to leave Houston unless the fingerprinting requirement is lifted — or legislation passes that will no longer give the city any say in regulations.