When early voting starts on Monday for Lyft’s and Uber’s proposed ordinance, called Proposition 1, Austin residents would be wise to vote against it, despite campaign ads singing its praises.
Voting against Prop. 1 is the best way to ensure that Lyft, Uber and other ride-hailing service drivers, undergo the most thorough criminal background checks endorsed by law enforcement: fingerprint checks. By contrast, Lyft and Uber are demanding name-based background checks. Prop. 1 would accomplish that by eliminating fingerprint checks. But you won’t see or hear mention of “fingerprint checks” in ads or fliers Uber and Lyft are floating.
You also won’t hear or see an equally important issue at stake in the May 7 election: Whether it should be corporations or Austin’s elected leaders that write the rules for doing business in the city. That power, in our view, should remain in the hands of the democratically elected officials who represent Austin residents — not private companies with deep pockets. Voting against Prop. 1, crafted by Lyft and Uber, keeps that authority with Austin’s elected City Council.
On those terms, the question on the ballot is relatively simple, but the issues are being cleverly camouflaged in the high-dollar ad campaign being waged by Lyft and Uber through the companies’ political action committee, Ridesharing Works for Austin. Lyft and Uber contributed $2.2 million to the group — an unprecedented amount for an Austin election. The primary group opposing Prop. 1, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, reported raising and spending less than $15,000.
Despite that spending advantage, Lyft and Uber apparently are unwilling to risk Prop. 1’s fortunes on the facts. Instead, they’ve bent the facts to a point in which they only ring true in Superman’s Bizarro world.
You might recall, that’s the world in which everything operates in a warped or reverse way. So the square-jawed, handsome hero of Metropolis fame is misshapen in the face and twisted in character, though he still maintains super powers. And that kind of distortion, crafted from some kernels of truth, is evident in the slick campaign ads of Lyft and Uber.
One example shows up in recent television ads that tell the public that the vote on May 7 is not about whether criminal background checks are conducted, but who pays for them: Lyft and Uber, or Austin taxpayers. In their world, a vote against Prop. 1 hands that expense to taxpayers. It’s a specious claim.
So a voice-over in the ad says: “A vote against (Proposition 1) would require the city to take over background checks and Austin taxpayers would pay.” The ad goes on to say that a vote for Prop. 1 is a vote for “full city oversight and for ridesharing companies to pay.”
A flier mailed by Ridesharing Works echoes a similar message: “Vote for Prop. 1 – Uber and Lyft keep paying. Vote Against Prop. 1 – Taxpayers Pay.”
As we said, the claims ring true in Bizarro world, but not in Austin.
Several city officials repeatedly — and emphatically – have explained that city taxpayers won’t be on the hook for paying for fingerprint background checks required under the current ordinance, which phases in those checks. Instead, the money would come, if not entirely then primarily, from Lyft, Uber and other transportation network companies in fees those companies pay to the city for operating in Austin.
The current ordinance, as Austin City Council Member Ann Kitchen points out, establishes a 1 percent fee on ride-hailing companies’ local revenue for that purpose. If that money doesn’t cover the entire cost, the city currently has the authority to raise those fees to the state maximum of 2 percent or even require app drivers to pay toward those costs, as taxi drivers do now.
While we’re on the topic, fingerprint-based background checks are required of Austin’s taxi, limousine and even pedicab drivers. Aside from the public safety benefit, there needs to be a level playing field.
Over the past months, Lyft and Uber have used various messaging to drive support for their Prop. 1. Initially, the companies threatened to bolt if the City Council required fingerprint checks. Then they said approving Prop. 1, which eliminates fingerprint checks, would keep the companies operating in the city.
Their step away from that message might signal that the public favors fingerprint-based background checks or is divided over that point. Either would be risky for Prop. 1.
Certainly a city like Austin needs as many transportation options as possible, so if Lyft and Uber left it would greatly diminish the ability of Austin residents to move around in an increasingly congested city. And no one denies that Lyft and Uber contribute to public safety in taking drunk drivers off the road. That is why we urged the City Council to compromise with Lyft and Uber through incentives or other voluntary measures to get drivers to undergo fingerprint checks — rather than requirements.
The council could modify its current ordinance to work toward that goal. But if voters approve Prop. 1, fingerprint checks will be eliminated and Lyft and Uber will have little — if any — incentive to compromise.
For all of those reasons, as well as the other safety requirements that would be eliminated by tossing out the current ordinance and replacing it with Prop. 1, Austin residents should reject Prop 1.