Q&A: What Austin voters need to know about the Prop 1 election

The issue, as Austin Mayor Steve Adler put it awhile back, has sucked all the oxygen out of City Hall for the past several months: how best to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

The culmination of that high-stakes back-and-forth, and of several million dollars in spending by the two companies on a political campaign, begins Monday when early voting starts for the May 7 election and Proposition 1. Knowing what to do might be difficult for some Austin voters, both because of the ticklish questions involved about safety and the continuing existence of the popular ride-hailing services but also due to the hard-to-follow ballot language.

Here are some answers to questions about Austin’s Prop 1.

What am I being asked to decide?

The choice is whether to stand by an existing Austin ordinance on ride-hailing services, passed by the Austin City Council in December, or to replace it with one offered by Ridesharing Works for Austin, a political action committee funded by Lyft and Uber.

So, when I go into the voting booth, I’ll see something that says check here for the “city ordinance” or check here for the “Uber/Lyft ordinance?”

Unfortunately, no. What you’ll see is a dense, 60-word question about repealing a city ordinance and replacing it with another ordinance that would do a number of things.

So I then check “yes” or “no.”

Again, sadly, that is not the case. You will be asked if you are “for the ordinance” or “against the ordinance.”

But … which one?

That’s the key here. The ordinance the ballot is asking you about is the potential new ordinance, the one backed by Uber and Lyft. So a vote “for the ordinance” is for the Uber and Lyft ordinance. A vote “against the ordinance” would be you saying, “I don’t want the Uber and Lyft ordinance. I want the existing city ordinance to remain in effect.”

Why are we having this election?

After the City Council passed its ordinance in December, Lyft and Uber, who didn’t like several aspects of it, organized and funded a petition drive through Ridesharing Works for Austin to force a public vote to repeal the law and replace it with the one they authored. They got enough signatures of registered Austin voters to give the City Council a choice: accept our petition law, or call the May 7 election. The council voted in February to call the election.

What are the key differences between the December City Council ordinance and the proposed Uber/Lyft ordinance?

There are several. But the crux is that the December law requires that companies that provide ride-hailing services through smartphone apps — not just Uber and Lyft, but any others that want to operate in Austin — have their prospective drivers fingerprinted as part of a national criminal background check. Why? The council’s 9-2 majority (Ellen Troxclair and Don Zimmerman voted against it) wanted to “level the playing field” with Austin taxi, shuttle and limo drivers, who must undergo fingerprint-based background checks. And they said that fingerprinting is the only way to assure that the person applying to drive is the same person whose background is being checked.

The Proposition 1 ordinance, if enacted, would specifically bar the city from requiring fingerprint-based criminal background checks of drivers with ride-hailing services.

So Uber and Lyft don’t want fingerprinting of drivers? Why?

They say that fingerprinting is cumbersome and an expense for applicant drivers, and thus will significantly reduce the number of people who attempt to become part-time ride-hailing drivers. Having fewer drivers, they argue, will do real damage to their business model and to the customer experience by lengthening the waiting time for a car to arrive.

They also maintain that their criminal background checks, which depend on driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers and other documentation provided by the driver, do an acceptable job of weeding out people with a questionable past. They note that the city’s initial 2014 law allowing the companies to operate in Austin permitted these name-based background checks.

Beyond that, they say, each transaction between a driver and customer is stored electronically from start to finish, and that record serves as an effective deterrent to criminal acts.

Is that true?

Both fingerprinted taxi drivers and Lyft- or Uber-checked drivers have been accused of crimes against passengers, both here and in other cities, and both processes can overlook problematic acts in the drivers’ backgrounds. No comprehensive, irrefutable study comparing the relative safety of each exists, in part because Uber and Lyft don’t release to the public data about their number of drivers or hours driven.

So fingerprinting is the only difference between the City Council ordinance and the Uber/Lyft ordinance?

No. The city law prohibits ride-hailing drivers from picking up or dropping off a passenger in a regular travel lane of a street, which might block traffic, instead requiring them to pull over into a parking lane. The city law also requires ride-hailing drivers to display on their car “trade dress,” which is some sort of identifying marker that the driver is affiliated with the company. The proposed law under Proposition 1, backed by the ride-hailing companies, would strike both of those provisions.

The City Council law also demands that the companies report to the city much more information about their drivers and rides than would be required under Proposition 1’s alternative law.

I heard the Uber/Lyft law imposes a fee on the ride-hailing companies?

It does, 1 percent of gross annual revenue. But so does the existing city law.

The city law also carries the possibility of an additional 1 percent fee unless the companies take certain steps, including face-to-face interviews with prospective drivers, to get ride-hailing drivers fingerprinted as quickly as possible. City officials have indicated they would use that additional 1 percent fee to pay, or help pay, for the fingerprinting rather than putting that cost on individual drivers or the companies. That issue remains to be resolved after May 7, depending on how the election goes.

All in all, the fee question could be basically a wash between the two ordinances, because if Uber or Lyft stay in Austin under the city’s rules, they probably would do what it takes to avoid that other 1 percent fee.

Wait: If Uber or Lyft stay?

Representatives of both companies have indicated that if Proposition 1 loses, and the city’s fingerprinting mandate stays in effect, they would turn off their apps and cease operations in Austin. They did just that in San Antonio last year, and only came back after the fingerprinting of drivers was made voluntary there. Lyft left Houston after fingerprinting of drivers became mandatory there in 2014, but Uber stayed and is still operating there. Both companies are operating in New York City, which requires fingerprinting of drivers.

So my choice is simple: vote “for the ordinance” or Austin will have no ride-hailing services, right?

Not exactly. GetMe, a much smaller ride-hailing company, is operating here and in a few other cities, and others could launch operations here under the city’s rules. Beyond that, the drivers themselves wouldn’t be leaving town. Presumably, GetMe or other companies could fill the void, although there surely would be some period with a reduced level of service. Or Uber or Lyft, given the robust market here, might decide to stay. The crystal ball is partly cloudy.

Texas law doesn’t cover this?

Not yet. According to Uber, 27 states have passed ride-hailing laws taking these decisions out of local governments’ hands, and those statutes have generally been the sort that Lyft and Uber like. No fingerprinting, in other words, but also generally a lighter government hand on the companies. Such a law was introduced in the 2015 Texas legislative session, but never made it to the floor of the House or Senate.

But the Legislature will be back in a little over eight months, and the early word is that a prominent senator will carry another ride-hailing bill. If it becomes law, depending on its content and reach, all of Austin’s heartburn over this issue might turn out to have been in vain. But what happens here, both with the election and in the aftermath, could influence what the Legislature chooses to do.

OK. So, run through that ballot thing one more time.

Want the Uber- and Lyft-backed law with no fingerprinting? Vote “for the ordinance.” Want the existing City Council law with fingerprinting and the other elements? Vote “against the ordinance.”

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