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$33K in campaign donations given to council by taxi industry

Ted Oberg investigates why it has taken so long for Houston leaders to make a ruling on ride-sharing
Houston's Yellow Cab parent company and Yellow Cab's chief executive officer have given at least $33,500 in campaign contributions to members of city council over the past two years, city records examined by ABC-13 show.

These donations from the Texas Taxi Political Action Committee or Yellow Cab CEO Roman Martinez were distributed as the debate was brewing over allowing taxi-like services Uber and Lyft to operate on city streets.

No campaign contributions to city council members were found for Uber or Lyft, vehicle-for-hire companies that can be hailed via smartphone app.

"Uber as a company doesn't donate to politicians," said Chris Nakutis, Uber's Houston-based Operations Manager.

A final vote on whether to allow Uber and Lyft to operate legally in Houston is expected Wednesday.

Yellow Cab's Martinez said that campaign contributions are common and not controversial.

"It's what every city business does," he said. In addition, Martinez noted that Uber and Lyft have "hired tons of lobbyists."

"We needed to protect ourselves," he said.

These donations mirror what's going on nationally.

For each dollar that companies like Uber and Lyft have donated to state legislators across the US, the taxi industry has doled out $3,500, according to an analysis by the Washington DC-based Sunlight Foundation.

Houston officials have been debating the issue for over a year. And an all-star team of City Hall lobbyists on both sides of the issue have been fighting for control of the debate.

Opponents of Uber and Lyft want more regulations on those companies. They welcome more delays, too, as taxi and limo companies attempt to head off the upstart transport services in court.

"I believe there needs to be a call to stand down," Houston City Councilman Michael Kubosh said during a recent debate on the issue. "Bring this up again in three to six months if you wish."

Certainly issue after issue brought up by the Yellow Cab team has delayed this vote.

The latest delay dealt with the issue over wheelchair accessibility in taxis and in Uber or Lyft vehicles.

Yellow Cab has wheelchair accessible cabs and have made an orchestrated effort to get disabled passengers in yellow t-shirts to city hall to show support.

City records show that Yellow Cab have about 300 ramp-equipped cabs and the taxi company has offered wheelchair accessible vehicles for years.

"The one thing that we're doing that they're not doing is we're servicing all types of people," said Natalie Moore, who drives a wheelchair accessible taxi for Yellow Cab. "And when I say that I mean disabled, handicapped."

Uber and Lyft have none now but officials with those companies say they expect to have some quickly after any city ordinance passes.

Yellow Cab say they provide these vehicles because they are good Houston business citizens.

"We do it because it's the right thing to do," Yellow's Martinez said.

But ABC-13 found that Yellow Cab has collected about $100 million dollars from government contracts in the last 5 years to take disabled passengers from place to place. That's not enough to pay for all the wheelchair taxis, but it's a good head start.

Yellow Cab's officials and lobbyists have not brought up that the taxi company gets millions in government contracts to support their efforts to transport the handicapped as the issue delayed the vote over the last month.

Uber's Nakutis admits the delays have taken longer than he hoped and have resulted in tougher rules for Uber than virtually anywhere in the nation.

Producer: Trent Seibert
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