Politics & Government

Lawmakers negotiate to bring Uber back to Kansas

The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA — Uber sped out of Kansas last week after the Legislature overrode Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill placing stronger regulations on ride-hailing companies.

But there’s a chance the company could return, lawmakers say.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said he and Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, met with lobbyists representing Uber last week after the company announced its departure from Wichita and other Kansas markets in the face of the new regulations.

“They haven’t pulled out. They shut off,” said Schwab, who chairs the House Insurance Committee.

Uber and similar services allow customers to hail a ride and pay for it using an app on their smartphones. Schwab said that although Uber has shut off the app in Kansas, it hasn’t severed contracts with drivers and the service could resume if lawmakers and the company can find a compromise.

A spokeswoman for Uber would not talk about any negotiations between the company and Kansas lawmakers.

But a talking points e-mail sent from House Speaker Ray Merrick’s office to House Republicans on Friday afternoon said, “Now that the bill is law, ride sharing company Uber has finally entered into negotiations for the first time this year.”

“The goal is to find compromise language that is acceptable to Uber and that meets public safety needs and includes best business practices,” the e-mail from the speaker’s office said. “Although lawmakers made a good-faith effort to engage with Uber during the development of the law, Uber’s tactics became increasingly hostile.”

Asked if he thought Uber would return, Brownback did not sound overly optimistic Friday.

“Well, yeah, I think there’s something we can do to bring Uber back, but we’re going to have to have a less regulatory atmosphere for them,” he said. “There was a couple of things in that bill that were different than nationwide and that’s why I vetoed it in the first place.”

SB 117, set to go into effect in July, would require ride-hailing companies to certify that drivers have comprehensive and collision insurance. It would also require drivers to undergo background checks conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

Angry e-mails

Uber abruptly ended its service in Kansas on Tuesday after the veto override. It said in an e-mail to customers that the new regulations would “make it impossible for Uber to operate in the state” and called the legislation “unprecedented in its regulatory overreach.”

Since then lawmakers have been inundated with angry e-mails from constituents who think they unnecessarily drove the service out of Kansas.

And some Kansans on social media are using the hash tag “#BringBackUberKS” on Twitter to campaign for the company’s return.

“I really don't understand the issue KS legislature has with Uber. Why take away an option for people to get home safely?” tweeted Wichita resident Adrian Velasquez.

“Live in Kansas? Had too much to drink? No #Uber? Call your State Rep for a ride,” tweeted Derby resident Keith Humphrey.

Uber has done the same thing elsewhere. It halted services in San Antonio and Boise over local regulations and encouraged its customers to voice their anger to city officials.

Dave Sutton, a spokesman for the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, pointed out in a news release that Uber complied with all regulations regarding for-hire vehicles in New York City. “But when Kansas lawmakers ask for safe insurance coverage and driver background checks conducted by law enforcement, suddenly these requirements become too onerous,” he said.

Search for compromise

Overriding the veto was a necessary step in the negotiation process, Schwab said.

“If they want to negotiate, we can negotiate. Uber would never negotiate. All they would do is threaten us every day,” he said. “Now we have leverage and they have to compromise.”

He said Uber has made a compromise offer on the insurance piece. He would not go into detail but said that it was not a significant change and was similar to a suggestion lawmakers made several weeks ago.

Mark Dugan, one of Uber’s lobbyists in Topeka, would not comment on the talks.

Schwab said no compromise has been reached on the background issue, which has been a topic of debate in other states following a string of news stories about Uber drivers being arrested and accused of sexual assault. Uber has fought efforts elsewhere to require stricter background checks.

The company says that the background checks it already conducts are sufficient and that the requirement to have them done by the KBI would be overly burdensome.

“I don’t know if they’re still willing to compromise on the background check,” Schwab said. He said the state relies on the KBI to conduct background checks for a wide swath of services, such as day care center employees for example, and that ride-hailing drivers ought not get special treatment.

“Here’s the problem. Uber wants an exception that nobody in Kansas gets. How do I do that? How do I explain that to Kansas that, yeah, a California company bought my heart,” Schwab said. “I can’t do that … I’m sorry I can’t give you an exception that you don’t want me to give to every other Kansan.”

Lobbying efforts

Uber has aggressively lobbied against regulations in statehouses around the country and at the federal level.

A report from the Center for Public Integrity this week documented Uber’s lobbying efforts nationally.

“Much is at stake for the 6-year-old company: Its “ride share” services are still unsanctioned or even illegal in some communities, and Uber has at once aggressively sought governments’ approval to legally do business – while minimizing the kinds of strict operational rules and regulations that taxi and other ground transportation companies must often comply with,” the report from CPI states.

Uber spent $200,000 lobbying at the federal level last year and has already spent $110,000 during the first three months of this year, according to CPI. It employs statehouse lobbyists in 45 of 50 states.

Brownback said Kansas should let the regulatory issues for ride-hailing companies be sorted out at the national level.

“So that then you can import and use those here, so that people are well set,” he said. “I thought this was early in putting this sort of law forward. And that’s why I vetoed the bill. I’m sorry to see them out of the state. I hope they do come back.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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