Texas lawmakers grill Uber executives on ride-hauling rules

AUSTIN, TX (KTRK) -- Inside a packed hearing room, State Representative Larry Philips wanted Uber to answer a simple question: How did its background check miss Duncan Burton's federal drug conviction. Burton's the Uber driver now charged with sexual assault of a passenger.

"Have you all, have investigated and said, 'What went on, what went wrong here?'" asked Phillips, R-Sherman.

Uber's government affairs expert Sally Kay didn't have a specific answer to the case of the Houston Uber driver. However, Kay and the company she works for are pushing lawmakers to pass a bill that would regulate transportation network companies statewide. Currently, cities across Texas pass local ordinances to regulate rideshare companies. If a state law passes, it would override any local city regulation.

The City of Houston says House Bill 2440, in its current form, would make ride sharing companies less safe. That's because it does not require a fingerprint background check, like Houston does. Instead, the bill would allow companies like Uber and Lyft to conduct their own third party back ground check by using an online vendor.

"In a number of cases, folks who have passed their background check process, have not passed ours, because there are things that ours catches and theirs didn't," said Mayor Annise Parker's Chief of Staff Christopher Newport, who came to testify against the bill in its current form.

Newport says the City of Houston has two main concerns. "The first is that it preempts our local ordinance that we adopted last summer. The second is that it does not require fingerprint based background checks and our local experience has shown that's a necessary and important component regulation of this."

City of Houston documents show the city's background checks have already captured a number of drivers who passed the Uber checks but turned out to have criminal histories. Specific data on how many drivers has not been released by the city because it says Uber is fighting release of driver specifics. The company testified Thursday that it considers the number of drivers a trade secret.

Uber is opposed to a statewide fingerprint background check, saying it's slow and not business friendly.

"So why couldn't you do a 10 finger fingerprint check?" asked State Rep. Joe Pickett, (D)- El Paso, Chair of the Houston Transportation Committee hearing the bill.

"If we have to comply with a fingerprint mandate, it typically adds many weeks to the process of getting a driver on board and earning money," said Uber's Sally Kay.

Statewide, a number of business groups have come forward supporting state wide regulation of transportation network companies. However, during Thursday's hearing, several cities, including Houston, Austin, and Corpus Christi, voiced their concerns that the proposed bill is just too lax.

In Houston's case, the city says if Burton had gone through the fingerprint background check as required, he never would have become a Houston Uber driver. As of right now, Houston still does not know how many unpermitted drivers are on the streets.

Mayor Annise Parker's office says it is willing to consider statewide regulation of the industry if the legislators add a fingerprint background check to the requirements. For now, lawmakers have not taken any action on the bill.
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