Taxis Will Be “At Your Own Risk”
State "deregulation" bill would also put hundreds of local cab drivers out of work.
A taxicab deregulation bill making its way through the state Legislature could make conditions worse for riders and drivers. It would disqualify hundreds of drivers from being able to drive taxis and subject riders to inconsistent fares and vehicle conditions.
The bill is being introduced by Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) and Rep. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown). In an email to his fellow legislators, Knodl says the bill “helps get the government off the backs of business and increases competition.” According to Knodl, the bill is intended to place taxicabs and taxicab companies on the same competitive plane as transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft.
Since Urban Milwaukee first reported on the controversial bill on January 23rd, Knold has picked up Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), Rob Hutton (R-Brookfield) and Cindi Duchow (R-Town of Delafield) as co-sponsors.
The bill would eliminate the city’s ability to regulate drivers, vehicles and the taxicab companies. The city currently has about 412 licensed vehicles and 1,951 licensed drivers. Since the summer of 2014, the city has scheduled 523 hearings for drivers based on police or neighborhood objections, denied 92 driver permits and revoked the permits of 28 others.
“We come in here and delve into the facts and make a judgment based on the findings,” said Alderman Robert Bauman.
The bill wouldn’t have the state simply take over the licensure of drivers and vehicles, a move that the city has explored before with the county. Instead, the bill would have the state’s Department of Safety and Professional Services simply license the taxicab companies, with a maximum fee of $5,000.
The companies, not a government body, would be required perform background checks on the drivers, and have a pass/fail standard to apply to them.
The pass/fail standard would be a drastic change from how the city currently regulates drivers. Under the new rules, drivers would not be allowed to drive for licensed companies in the event the driver has had more than three moving violations in the past three years or has in the last seven years committed an offense that resulted in a suspension, revocation, or other conviction counted under s. 343.307 or any crime involving fraud, theft, damage to property, violence, acts of terror or the use of a motor vehicle in the commission of a felony. Drivers would also be required to provide proof of insurance, be at least 18 years of age and not appear in a national sex offender registry.
This presents a number of problems according to Pfaff and Bauman. It would likely result in hundreds of current cab drivers losing their employment.
One problem: Pfaff noted that moving violations are routinely pled down to non-moving violations. They wouldn’t show up on background checks, while the city’s current process catches such offenses. Two, Bauman explained that the city considers many drivers with past felonies that turn out not to be relevant to their ability to be a cab driver. Three, according to Pfaff one could spend the last seven years in jail, get released, and immediately start driving a cab without question.
Instead of applying a strict pass/fail standard, the city examines every application and calls a hearing if there are any concerns.
By contrast, the proposed bill “is extremely discriminatory against entry-level employees and people trying to get their life back together,” said Bauman.
“This is horrible actually, aside from removing all protections from the public, it’s extremely harsh on the prospective employees, many of whom are people of color, who won’t be eligible to drive cabs anymore,” Bauman told his fellow committee members.
Gone also would also be a standardized meter rate and vehicle inspections. Vehicles would be required to post a rate, but there would be no maximum rates as the city currently dictates. Rates would be required to be posted online, something that wasn’t known as the board discussed the measure, but because there are no vehicle inspections things might not be as they seem.
Pfaff and Bauman traded stories about how the city has caught various meter violations. Some drivers have attempted to install smaller tires to make the meter count faster. Others have replaced their transmissions in an attempt to accelerate the meter’s counting. The city’s inspectors catch violators by driving vehicles on a one-mile test route.
The issues don’t stop there according to city officials. Uber and Lyft impose vehicle quality standards on their drivers. Cab companies would be under no such requirement. “There’s an accountability loophole here,” said Pfaff.
“We spent two years in a very open, very deliberative process and they spent two weeks,” said Bauman.
He places blame squarely at the feet of one member of the legislature, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-New Berlin). “His fingerprints aren’t on it,” said Bauman, referring to the bill’s drafting history. But Bauman says Sanfelippo has all the motivation. The representative’s family owns the American United Transportation Group. The company, which now brands itself as TaxiMKE, is the largest holder of taxicab permits in Milwaukee.
Milwaukee County lobbyist Eric Peterson, who serves on the city committee, said the county is attempting to get medical vans removed from the bill’s oversight. Bauman told his fellow committee members that many of the van drivers are likely those that would lose their employment under the new regulations.
The bill has already been modified to allow the county-owned airport to continue to regulate taxicabs, a move that Peterson said maintains compliance with federal regulations. The airport also permits Uber and Lyft drivers.
Bauman promised to hold a press conference on the bill in the coming weeks. Thursday’s meeting served largely as a question-and-answer session for the alderman with city staff. “To some of my colleagues facts are irrelevant, but I have to know what I’m talking about here,” said Bauman without naming names.
Taxicabs A Source of Controversy
Taxicab legislation had become increasingly controversial in recent years, even before companies like Lyft and Uber began providing rides in Wisconsin. The city lost a lawsuit regarding its nearly 25-year-old cap on the number of cabs. In March 2014 the city attempted to please license holders and license applicants by issuing 100 new licenses. By July, the city had eliminated the cap entirely and legalized new market entrants Uber and Lyft.
The moves sent the value of permits, which were trading for $150,000, to effectively zero. Further compounding the taxicab industry woes, the state intervened to deregulate companies like Uber and Lyft, but left traditional taxis at the status quo.
If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits, all detailed here.