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Uber, Lyft would face new rules under state bill

(Pat Greenhouse/globe staff/file 2007)

Ride-for-hire firms like Uber and Lyft would face new regulations under legislation circulated Friday morning by Massachusetts House leaders, including increased state supervision and government background checks for drivers, according to a copy of the bill obtained by the Globe.

The bill, backed by House Speaker Robert DeLeo, a Democrat, refines a proposal filed last year by Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, and is expected to receive approval from the Legislature’s joint financial services committee over the weekend before heading to the full House for a vote.

Drivers would be subject to both a company background check and one conducted by the state, with a range of restrictions in place depending on their criminal records. That system, said top Democrats, would provide the country’s most stringent background-check structure for the rapidly growing industry.

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Lawmakers stopped short of imposing fingerprinting requirements in the committee bill, a key provision sought by the taxi industry, which contends that ride-hailing firms operate with unfair competitive advantages.

Baker signaled tentative backing for the committee bill, saying through a spokesman that he “is grateful for the committees’ work, and believes this bill represents an important first step in protecting public safety while allowing for continued economic growth. The governor looks forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to accomplish these goals.”

Under the bill, cars operating with companies like Uber and Lyft would be required to sport external markers and would not be allowed to use “surge pricing” during weather emergencies. The legislation would also force such companies to purchase insurance policies that meet certain financial thresholds.

Ride-hailing firms would be forbidden from picking up fares at cab stands, Logan Airport, or the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and the state would be empowered to revoke or suspend the licenses of both companies and drivers.

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The bill’s emergence from committee has been among the most heavily anticipated developments of the legislative session, heavily lobbied on all sides by a variety of interests and eyed keenly as a test of how Beacon Hill seeks to deal with new technologies. Uber alone spent over $300,000 on lobbying expenses in Massachusetts last year, according to state records.

One local strategist working with the ride-for-hire industry said the companies were displeased with the proposal and still formulating a formal response late Friday, but planned to seek changes.

A coalition representing taxi and limousine companies, known as Ride Safe Massachusetts, quickly criticized the bill for not doing enough to protect customers.

“Massachusetts is positioned to be the first state in the US to stand up for passenger safety by finally regulating Uber and Lyft and I applaud the chairman and his committee for their attempt at doing so,” said Scott Solombrino, spokesman for the coalition and the CEO of Dav El and BostonCoach, in an e-mailed statement. “However, we are very disappointed that the bill language released today does not include any of the key provisions that we believe are necessary to ensure passenger safety – fingerprinting of drivers, commercial insurance, and vehicle identification plates.”

Solombrino signaled that his group would look to persuade lawmakers to add those measures to the bill as it moves through legislative process, first to the House for amendment and approval, then the Senate, and, ultimately, Baker’s desk.

“Uber and Lyft passengers deserve the same level of security that my livery passengers receive. It is the job of lawmakers to protect our state’s residents and we look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to strengthen the bill language as it moves through the legislative process,” he said.

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In part because public policy has lagged behind the spread of technology-dependent companies like Uber and Lyft, lawmakers acknowledged struggling to devise rules for industries with little precedent. And as Massachusetts seeks to market its business climate as tech-friendly, the politics around regulating such businesses have grown murky.


Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com.