Assembly unveils bill to permit Uber, Lyft-like services upstate - The Buffalo News
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Assembly unveils bill to permit Uber, Lyft-like services upstate

ALBANY – The Assembly unveiled Friday a new measure that permits ride-hailing services in upstate, but its stronger consumer and driver protections differ from what the Senate and Gov. Andrew Cuomo are pushing.

The legislation was introduced in the Assembly on Friday night. The 26-page single spaced bill makes demands of both ride-hailing companies and their drivers.

Companies can be fined for drivers who repeatedly violate laws. Companies must post on a website information about specific fare levels and how the fares are calculated “prior to charging such fare.’’

The bill also gives specific powers to the state Attorney General to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by ride-hailing companies and sets a series of minimum insurance coverage levels, including $1.5 million as a minimum coverage amount for when ride-hailing drivers are transporting passengers.

It requires ride-hailing companies to ensure that criminal background checks of drivers include local and national database checks, including state and federal registries of sex offenders.

“This bill also preserves the worldwide tradition, existing for over 150 years, of governing personal commercial transportation at the local level. Communities are best suited to determine levels of regulation for driver qualification, access for people with disabilities, local customs, taxation, if any, and many other factors that can vary from one community to another in our very diverse state,’’ states a legislative memo accompanying the bill that was placed Friday evening on a state bill tracking system.

Assembly Democrats insist that localities across upstate and Long Island be given the authority to create their own regulations aimed at companies like Uber and Lyft.

The companies and Cuomo envision a single statewide regulatory scheme.

Presently, New York City is the sole place in New York where ride-hailing is legal, and the city government has the final say over how the companies are regulated.

“Metropolitan areas are unique and have their own needs … We respect that. We respect that Westchester County may have more stringent requirements than Chautauqua County,’’ said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat and sponsor of the ride-hailing effort in the Democratic-led Assembly.

The ability of localities to determine whether to permit ride-hailing companies and then regulate them has been among the major sticking points of the transportation debate.

The legislation could be approved next week.

The Senate has backed a different approach, which is also different from what Cuomo has proposed. Whether the differences are resolved and a ride-hailing effort makes it into this year’s budget later this month – or is punted until the end of session in June – is too early to determine.

The Assembly version comes after lawmakers in private sessions discussed the spate of negative news stories concerning Uber, the nation’s biggest ride-hailing company that has spent millions on lobbying and public relations campaigns to get the services legalized in upstate and on Long Island.

Recent media accounts have included allegations by an ex-employee that her sexual harassment claims were ignored by the company.

This week, the New York Times reported Uber has used a technology called “Greyball” to evade local authorities in a number of cities that were seeking to crack down on ride-hailing services. The report noted how Uber used the tool in 2014 to thwart detection by a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Ore., where the ride-hailing services had been banned. A group that represents upstate taxi cab companies called on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate Uber’s use of the Greyball tool.

Lawmakers said the negative headlines reinforced efforts to ensure ride-hailing legalization is not driven by the industry.

“Certainly, they make us more conscious that we need to build protections for consumers and drivers into any Uber legislation,’’ said Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat.

Ryan said he is confident a ride-hailing deal will come sometime this legislative session.

“But whatever we have will have consumer protections, worker protections and access for the disabled,’’ he said.

How disabled consumers will be protected is still being worked out in the Assembly bill, Cahill said Thursday morning. Advocates for disabled people have said a ride-hailing law should require companies to set aside a certain number of vehicles that disabled individuals can access. Such requirements are required of many cab companies in New York City.

[RELATED: Disabled voices left out of ride-hailing conversation, advocates say]

Assembly Democrats have long insisted that ride-hailing drivers be given protections as if they were employees and not as independent contractors. The newly emerging Assembly bill will require upstate ride-hailing drivers to be placed by Uber and the other companies into the New York City Black Car Fund, a workers compensation-type system that covers drivers of black car services, limousines and other non-taxi vehicles, Cahill said.

The Assembly version also:

  • Gives localities great sway over creating protections for consumers who want to use Uber and the other companies.
  • Requires a statewide government database to check on the criminal backgrounds of drivers, instead of letting the ride-hailing companies provide their own background reviews. The question of whether fingerprinting background checks will be permitted was still an open question on Thursday, Cahill said.
  • Requires the ride-hailing companies to have a sticker placed onto the windshields of their drivers' cars, showing that they are drivers for Uber, Lyft or another company.
  • Provides for sales taxes to be collected based on where a ride originates and steers the local share into municipalities’ general funds to let local government officials decide how the additional proceeds are spent.
  • Bans drivers from discriminating against consumers based on age, sex, color, religion, gender identity and others and empowers the state’s Division of Human Rights to investigate discrimination claims by people who were denied rides by a ride-hailing driver.
  • Sets higher auto liability insurance coverage levels than other proposals that has different levels based on whether the driver is responding to a call or has a passenger in the vehicle. The precise coverage levels are still being reviewed, Cahill said.

Cahill said it is possible the Assembly will pass its bill next week, though it could be delayed as both houses increase their focus on the state budget process. The Senate and Assembly are due to pass their own, one-house budget plans on Tuesday or Wednesday.

[EDITORIAL: Ride-hailing service needs to give up questionable effort to dodge regulation]

“The difference between our bill and the ones by the governor and Senate is that we held roundtables. We heard from stakeholders for two years, and not just from Uber. While it certainly won’t satisfy everyone, it can be recognized that the Assembly’s effort is a synthesis of many of those interests,’’ the Hudson Valley lawmaker said Thursday.

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