Politics & Government

Lawmakers, Uber reach compromise to bring company back to Kansas

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, and Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, lead negotiations with Uber and others on legislation to regulate the ride-share industry.
Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, and Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, lead negotiations with Uber and others on legislation to regulate the ride-share industry. The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA – Kansas lawmakers and Uber have reached a compromise to bring the ride-hailing service back to the state, a week after it shut down operations over legislation it regarded as too restrictive.

The company has indicated it will return to the state after the compromise bill passes both chambers of the Legislature and the governor signs it into law, lawmakers said. The Kansas House will vote on it Friday. It is expected to have wide bipartisan backing.

The bill that prompted a strong reaction from Uber required all drivers for ride-hailing services to have comprehensive and collision insurance and undergo background checks conducted by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

Gov. Sam Brownback vetoed it, but the Legislature overrode the veto last week, prompting Uber to say it would not operate in Kansas.

The compromise reached Thursday would lessen both requirements.

Drivers who have car liens through a bank would need comprehensive and collision insurance. Uber would have to inform drivers of the requirement and ensure that drivers are covered during the periods their app is logged on; drivers would need to get the insurance.

The new plan also would not require KBI background checks. Instead, ride-hailing companies would be barred from hiring drivers who have been convicted of a felony, sexual offense, identity theft, driving under the influence and other crimes.

A company that failed to follow this requirement would be subject to a civil suit, which could be brought by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.

Lauren Altmin, a spokeswoman for Uber, said in an e-mail that the company was “pleased to say that a compromise has been reached that, if passed, would allow for Uber to once again operate in Kansas.” She urged lawmakers to support the measure.

That’s good news to John Bernhardt, a 72-year-old Wichitan.

“The day they shut it down is the day they approved me to become a driver,” Bernhardt said with a laugh. He’s relieved to know the company will be returning. “It’s absolutely a godsend. I’m retired and living on Social Security. It’s pretty slim pickings. … Social Security’s not that much, so the extra income that it’ll generate, like I say, it’ll be a godsend for me.”

Lawmakers have been inundated with angry e-mails and messages on social media since Uber’s announcement that it would leave the state.

“We’ve heard a lot,” acknowledged Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe.

Schwab said Attorney General Derek Schmidt was instrumental in helping forge the compromise by helping craft the requirements for drivers.

Schwab had been an outspoken critic of Uber in recent weeks and argued repeatedly that stricter rules were needed to ensure public safety. He said Schmidt’s backing of the compromise gave him the peace of mind he needed to support it.

“I’m not the attorney that’s going to have to enforce this, and when the attorney general says, yeah, this is something we can do and KBI was like, this gives us the public safety we want, then I’m for it,” said Schwab.

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, who led negotiations between Uber and other stakeholders, said the Kansas bill would likely become a model for other states. Several states have been grappling with the issue of how to regulate services like Uber that allow users to hail a ride using an app on their smartphone.

Rep. Travis Couture-Lovelady, R-Palco, who had been an outspoken critic of the original legislation, said that he wished lawmakers could have come to a compromise with the company a month ago.

“We could’ve got through this without the bad press nightmare that made us look unfriendly to business,” he said.

But some lawmakers said overriding Brownback’s veto was a necessary step in the negotiation process because it helped compel Uber to compromise.

The governor’s office said in an e-mailed statement that Brownback would review the bill when it reached his desk. “He has been hopeful a compromise would be reached,” the statement said. “As he said when he vetoed the earlier bill, Kansas should be known as a state that encourages innovative businesses to operate and grow in Kansas.”

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

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