Senate passes ride-for-hire bill that adds new regulations
The state Senate on Wednesday passed legislation that would subject ride-for-hire drivers to a state background check — in addition to the companies’ own screenings — but fell short of the more stringent requirements advocated by the taxi industry and public safety officials.
Lawmakers heatedly debated several aspects of the bill, including its introduction of a 10-cent per ride “assessment” that would be paid by companies such as Uber and Lyft, and the absence of a requirement for fingerprint checks. But they ultimately changed neither.
Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who helped write the legislation, said it would protect passengers while letting the new transportation companies flourish.
“I think it still strikes a big balance,” said Eldridge, who reminded lawmakers that ride-for-hire services are incredibly popular.
The bill, which seeks to regulate the companies under the Department of Public Utilities, ultimately garnered a positive response from the industry.
Chris Taylor, general manager of Uber Boston, commended senators for “their deliberative and open process that led to a significant step forward for innovation, transportation and economic growth for communities across the Commonwealth.”
Chelsea Wilson, a Lyft spokeswoman, said the legislation “expands consumer choice, encourages innovation and ensures passenger safety in the Commonwealth.”
But taxi and livery industry supporters blasted the legislation, saying it was “lacking in public safety provisions.”
“No FBI background checks. No license plates denoting the purpose of the vehicle. No insurance commensurate with level of coverage needed for the trips driven every day,” said Scott Solombrino, a livery industry executive and the spokesman for Ride Safe MA. “The public is left vulnerable and unprotected still. This is categorically unacceptable.”
Senators voted 34 to 2 to approve the legislation, which had some similarities to a House bill that would require an additional state-conducted background check for ride-for-hire drivers. The legislation must now go to a conference committee to reconcile the differences and must eventually win Governor Charlie Baker’s support to beomce law.
Under both bills, ride-for-hire companies, also known as ride-hailing or ride-sharing services, would be overseen by Public Utilities. Both bills stop short of fingerprint background checks, but would require insurance levels that are largely in line with what the companies already offer for drivers.
Under the Senate bill, however, drivers could continue to pick up passengers at Logan International Airport and the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston, a change from a bill already passed by the House. (The Massachusetts Port Authority currently allows some ride-for-hire drivers with commercial plates to pick up at Logan Airport.)
On Wednesday, several senators — including one involved in the committee that helped draft the bill — expressed disappointment with some aspects of the measure.
Companies like Uber and Lyft already conduct background checks on drivers. But Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, a Boston Democrat who worked on the legislation, proposed an amendment that would have required drivers to undergo a fingerprint check, a move pushed by Boston’s police commissioner, William Evans, and police chiefs across the state.
“It’s just adding another safety valve for those folks who are getting in the” cars of ride-for-hire drivers, she said.
Eldridge and others, however, argued that fingerprinting would not make passengers any safer and would unduly burden the drivers.
Eldridge said the information from fingerprint background checks comes from an incomplete database and can impose a barrier to employment for people of color, who are arrested at disproportionate rates — and might never be convicted. He mentioned a letter from former US attorney general Eric Holder, whose law firm counts Uber as a client, reiterating those points.
After a lengthy debate, senators rejected the amendment.
Lawmakers also sparred over a change that would have stripped the bill of a requirement for a 10-cent-per-ride assessment that companies would have to pay to municipalities for five years. They would be able to use the money for transportation-related spending, including road repairs or subsidies for taxi owners, who have seen the value of their required medallions drop.
Gloucester Senator Bruce Tarr, the Republican minority leader, blasted the assessment as an “innovation tax” for a “transportation slush fund.”
But senators kept the fee in the bill, following an impassioned speech by Dorcena Forry.
“Infrastructure is critical, and infrastructure is important because for the last several governors, we had no one focused on infrastructure, no one focused on our roads and bridges,” she said. “The 10 cent assessment, I would say, is easy. It’s easy for [transportation companies] that are making serious money from our consumers and our residents here.”
The original version of the bill was largely favorable to the ride-for-hire companies, allowing them to conduct their own background checks without an additional one from the Department of Public Utilities. But lawmakers were swayed by an amendment from Dorcena Forry, which asked for a two-tiered system of background checks.
Legislators also stripped from the bill a requirement that companies such as Uber provide a tipping option on their apps. Lyft already does that.