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Uber proves profitable for at least one group — lobbyists

Uber paid over $300,000 to lobbyists working to shape ride-sharing legislation.
Uber paid over $300,000 to lobbyists working to shape ride-sharing legislation. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

When legislation with dramatic implications for the state’s taxi and ride-for-hire industries hits the Senate floor Wednesday, it will have already gone a long way to help the local economy.

The bill has become one of the most heavily — and expensively — lobbied proposals of the legislative season, providing an enormous windfall for Beacon Hill lobbyists who scooped up more than $1.4 million in fees last year alone, according to a Globe review of lobbying disclosures.

Uber, which has resisted efforts to bring its regulations more closely in line with those of traditional taxis, paid more than $300,000 to lobbyists working to shape the bill, and added lobbyists this year. Other industries — from insurers to banks to rental-car agencies — have hired their own advocates to look out for their specific interests.

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“In all my work, on a fairly robust set of issues, I’d never seen this many lobbyists representing one company or one industry,” said Democratic Senator Jamie Eldridge, who helped write the Senate legislation. “You had the most powerful, most wealthy institutions in the country weighing in.”

Scott Solombrino, chief executive of Dav El/Boston Coach, who has been doing business in the state since 1978, said he has never undertaken a legislative push of this size in Massachusetts. Solombrino leads a coalition of taxi and limousine industry stakeholders pushing for increased regulation of the newer ride-for-hire firms.

“We’ve never needed this kind of lobbying effort because we’ve never been up against anything like this,” he said. On his coalition’s behalf alone, Solombrino added, “You’ve got four lobbying firms, four PR firms, and a pile of lawyers in the middle. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of stuff.”

The bill has drawn a visit from David Plouffe, a former Obama campaign chief who now works for Uber, and hundreds of advocates in color-coded T-shirts who packed a State House auditorium. Earlier this month, former US attorney general Eric Holder weighed in with a letter supporting Uber’s resistance to fingerprinting requirements.

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Stakeholders on all sides of the legislation call its fate in the closing weeks of the session unknowable, and say that, after likely passage in the Senate on Wednesday, the measure would face uncertainty in a conference committee.

Senators are poised to vote on their version of the bill, which is seen as friendlier than the House’s version to Uber and Lyft than it is for the traditional livery companies. The Senate proposal would largely preserve current regulations, shying from state background checks and fingerprinting for drivers, but would impose an “assessment” of 10 cents per ride that would fund municipal transportation spending.

More than 20 lobbying groups and individuals registered last year to work on legislation, a number expected to increase after next month’s 2016 reporting deadlines. Many of the groups employ multiple paid advocates on the bill. Among them are many former State House staffers and lawmakers, including some who held lofty capitol posts.

Former Senate president Robert Travaglini’s firm — which includes Arthur Bernard, a former chief of staff to Governor Deval Patrick — represents the New England Livery Association, as does former House majority leader John E. Murphy’s company.

On the other side, Uber employs Beacon Strategies, which is run by Patrick’s former top government affairs aide, and another firm that includes two former state representatives and a onetime top aide to former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. A third firm on retainer with Uber includes a former chairman of the state telecommunications and energy department, a onetime Massport and Menino administration staffer, and a third lobbyist who was a top state Senate aide.

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Lyft hired another high-powered firm led by a former state senator and two legislative agents who were senior House aides.

“If you weren’t hired to work on this issue, you need to retake Lobbying 101,” said one lobbyist working on the bill.

A major taxi medallion owner paid $58,000 to a lobbying shop led by a former Suffolk County sheriff. Banks have lobbyists working on the bill, because they provide the loans to taxi drivers who need medallions to operate cabs.

The Massachusetts Insurance Federation represents more than two dozen insurers in pushing for the measure to include clarifying language around coverage and policies. A firm led by a former House chair of the transportation committee and a former lawmaker who held leadership posts in both the House and Senate represent Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

“I’ve experienced a lot of contact from constituents and lobbyists, and certainly had a pretty vibrant conversation with my constituents through my online environment,” said state Senator William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and an architect of the Senate bill.

Chip Tuttle, a lobbyist and chief operating officer of Suffolk Downs, does not have a dog in the fight over what’s become known as “the Uber bill.” But he said the level of advocacy activity around it — workers coming to the capitol in droves, highly paid legislative agents — reminds him of the debate over casino gambling several years ago, except in a compressed amount of time.

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“There’s a lot at stake here, depending on the ultimate outcome, and, not surprisingly, the parties are really ramped up,” Tuttle said.

Similar debates over how local and state governments should handle the new companies are unfolding all over the country. As companies such as Uber insist that new regulations could stifle innovations, more traditional transportation firms are struggling to maintain a foothold, raising public-safety arguments to push for more oversight.

The starting gun sounded in Massachusetts when Governor Charlie Baker filed a bill in April 2015 putting the ride-for-hire firms under state supervision and requiring background checks for drivers. The House then passed its own bill, which included prohibitions on the ride-for-hire firms picking up fares at Logan Airport and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Throughout, paid advocates have weighed in, seeking seemingly innocuous changes that can have outsize impacts on their clients’ bottom lines.

Now, all eyes will be on the floor of the Senate and, then, on which members legislative leaders tap to serve on the looming conference committee.

But the $1.4 million figure does not approach the overall cost of influence shaping around the bill. For instance, a coalition including the livery group pays a politically wired Boston public affairs firm, Solomon McCown, to handle press relations. Another high-profile firm, Regan Communications, also represents Solombrino’s Dav El/Boston Coach in the media, but is not registered to lobby.

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Such activities are not subject to public disclosure rules the way lobbying is. Nor do legislative agents who work to shape municipal policies need to report the fees they receive for that work.


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