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Rick Scott signs death warrant for Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission

Among the bills Governor Rick Scott signed into law on Tuesday is HB 647, which eliminates of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission by December 31 of this year.

The agency, originally created by a special act of the Florida Legislature in the 1970’s and the only one of its kind in the state, has been shrouded in controversy for years. It’s last executive director,  Kyle Cockreamremains under investigation for his handling of public records.

The PTC had been criticized for years by local lawmakers, but previous attempts to dismantle the agency consistently fell short.

That changed however, after extensive reporting about the agency’s handling of ride sharing services Uber and Lyft ultimately compelled the entire Hillsborough County delegation to agree to a local bill sponsored by Tampa Republican House member Jamie Grant that would dismantle the organization.

“The public has lost complete faith in the ability of this agency to regulate credibly, equitably and efficiently,” Grant declared in announcing his legislation.

The beginning of the end for the agency started in 2010, when Cesar Padilla, then the executive director of the agency, resigned after it was reported that he had been moonlighting as a security guard.

There was also the case of former County Commissioner Kevin White, was busted in 2008 for taking bribes for helping tow company operators to get permits in his role as PTC chair. White ended up serving three years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The PTC caught the attention of lawmakers like Grant and Jeff Brandes after the PTC went after Uber when it introduced its Uber Black limo service during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The PTC shut that effort down quickly.

And then came Uber and Lyft into Hillsborough County in the spring of 2014. As those two companies refused to comply with PTC regulations (as they did in other jurisdictions throughout the country), PTC agents began citing those drivers, leading to court actions and more than two years of fighting before an agreement bringing both companies into compliance occurred last month.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office are scheduled to provide an update to the Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday on how the transition of the duties of the PTC into other parts of Hillsborough County’s government are going. The county is also expected to sign an interlocal agreement with heath governments of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace on regulating for hire vehicles.

Criminal justice reform remains a top priority for Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes said he plans to continue his push for criminal justice reform, advancing a multi-year process to take a closer look at the state’s criminal justice system.

Brandes, who has made criminal justice reform a top priority, was in Washington, D.C. last week for the Right on Crime annual summit. The conservative-leaning organization has been working on criminal justice issues in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.

Brandes said the key takeaway from the summit was that “many states are struggling with criminal justice reform at the same time.”

“They’re all realizing that the current trajectory they’re on isn’t working,” said Brandes, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “I think one of the things is we’re learning from each other’s experiences. Texas started this years ago, and we’re learning from their experience. We know what is palatable and we know what the outcomes are.”

Brandes said Florida can learn from other states, including Texas, about “what works and what doesn’t.”

“We don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel,” he said. “They’ve been able to have a meaningful impact and still reduce recidivism and overall crime.”

Gov. Rick Scott announced in 2016 the state’s crime rate was at a 45-year low, dropping to 3.1 percent in 2015. However, the state saw an increase in the number of murders, rapes and motor vehicle thefts during that same time period.

But Brandes said while crime is falling, the number of people in prisons remains static. And Brandes said the state needs to look at issues like sentencing, education, life skills and how to deal with addiction and mental health problems.

“What we know is that most people in jail today are going to get out. Are they going to get out as productive members of society or are they going to get out as better criminals,” said Brandes. “What are we doing (to address) education, life skills, addiction. Are we dealing with those appropriately?”

Brandes proposed a bill (SB 458) to create a 28-member task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice, courts and correction system. While the bill received unanimous support in early committee meetings, it didn’t get a vote of the full Senate before the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The St. Petersburg Republican has said he plans to make criminal justice reform a top priority during his term. He told the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists last year that while it wasn’t something his constituents were clamoring for; it was an issue that needs to be addressed.

Brandes didn’t just focus on criminal justice during his trip to D.C. last week. He also met with Rep. Dennis Ross to talk about flood insurance; as well as Uber and Tesla to talk about bills passed during the 2017 Legislative Session.

Governor signs landmark ride-sharing legislation into law

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Tuesday a bill that creates statewide regulations for ride-booking companies, like Uber and Lyft.

“I’m proud to sign this legislation today to make it easier for ridesharing companies to thrive in Florida and help ensure the safety of our families,” said Scott in a statement. “Florida is one of the most business-friendly states in the nation because of our efforts to reduce burdensome regulations and encourage innovation and job creation across all industries, including transportation.”

The legislation, among other things, requires ride-booking companies, like Uber and Lyft, to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury of death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app, but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a passenger, drivers would be required to have $1 million in coverage.

“Uber would like to thank Governor Rick Scott for signing House Bill 221 and for his steadfast support of the ridesharing industry. This law now opens the door for more residents and visitors to access innovative transportation options across all of Florida,” said Kasra Moshkani, the South Florida general manager for Uber. “Since Uber first arrived in Florida three years ago, we have worked with local leaders, safety groups and consumer groups to enhance the communities we serve. For Uber Florida, our priority is making safe and reliable rides easy and affordable — whether it’s for a mother needing transportation after a late work shift, or for a senior who needs to get to and from doctor appointments. Today, with Governor Scott’s signature, we see the culmination of hard work and dedication by so many: from Uber driver-partners and riders to our diverse local partners and community leaders.”

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes in the Senate and Reps. Chris Sprowls and Jamie Grant, it also requires companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. The law pre-empts local ordinances and rules on transportation network companies.

“This legislation will ensure the innovative ridesharing network across Florida continues to thrive,” said Cissy Proctor, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, in a statement. “Helping Florida businesses grow is critical to our economy, and this bill will also empower workers across the state to work when and where they want to meet the needs of their families.”

The law goes into effect July 1.

“This landmark legislation would have never happened without the Lyft community across the state who stood up for the benefits ridesharing brings to their families, businesses and cities,” said Chelsea Harrison, the senior policy communications manager for Lyft, in a statement. “We look forward to seeing Lyft continue to grow and thrive for years to come in the Sunshine State.”

It’s the end of the road for the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission

Legislation that would effectively kill the controversial Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission (HB 647) passed in the Florida House on Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Tampa Bay Republican Jamie Grant, was first introduced as a local bill at the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation meeting last December.

Although the PTC has reaped a slew of negative news stories over the past three years in its attempts to regulate ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft in Hillsborough County, widespread antipathy to the organization goes back years, if not decades.

Attempts to end the agency have been discussed by Hillsborough County Republicans stretching back to 2010, when then-Senator Ronda Storms threatened to do so. Grant first talked about ending the agency’s life in the summer of 2013.

Among the previous lowlights that had saddled the PTC came in 2010 when Cesar Padilla, then the executive director of the agency, resigned after it was reported that he had been moonlighting as a security guard.

There was also the case of former County Commissioner Kevin White, who was busted in 2008 for taking bribes for helping tow company operators to get permits in his role as PTC chair. White ended up serving three years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The PTC caught the attention of lawmakers like Grant and Jeff Brandes after the PTC went after Uber when it introduced its Uber Black limo service during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The PTC shut that effort down quickly.

Those lawmakers became incredibly irritated with the PTC and its (now former) chairman Victor Crist over the past few years, as Uber and Lyft refused to comply with PTC regulations. That led to PTC agents citing those drivers, leading to court actions and more than two years of fighting before an agreement bringing both companies into compliance occurred last month.

The most recent full-time PTC executive director, Kyle Cockream, resigned at the end of last year.

In February, the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement confirmed that they were conducting an inquiry into missing texts sent from Cockream’s personal phone and seven other PTC phones, going back to last October. Text messages are considered public records, and deliberately deleting them is a misdemeanor crime under state law.

The PTC was created by the state legislature in 1976 to regulate taxis, limousines, vans and basic life-support ambulances in Hillsborough County. No other such entity exists in the state of Florida.

Tom Lee quietly files unfriendly amendment affecting Uber, Lyft

State Sen. Tom Lee on Wednesday filed an amendment for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles bill that would regulate the operations of ridebooking services like Uber and Lyft.

The language would prohibit local governments and governmental bodies, including airport authorities, from cutting deal with “transportation network companies” (TNCs) to operate exclusively in their jurisdictions.

The amendment for the bill (HB 545) also prohibits agreements “that provides disparate treatment” to any TNC.

The prohibitions wouldn’t “apply to contracts existing on July 1, 2017,” nor if any deals resulted from “a competitive solicitation process.”

Requests for comment were sent to Lee, who was in a Senate floor session Thursday morning, and to spokespeople for Lyft and Uber.

Also this session, Lee called for an independent audit of the Tampa International Airport‘s expansion project, saying there are too many unanswered questions about how the airport is being run. Airport officials said they’d welcome any audit.

Updated 11 a.m. — The Senate temporarily postponed the bill after Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala warned against overpacking the transportation bill.

Lee had first said he wanted to “ensure the free market we were trying to set up under the original bill.” That refers to the TNC regulatory bill passed this session.

That bill’s sponsor, St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, then said he was “deeply conflicted” over the language because it didn’t address taxi companies.

Finally, Latvala warned: “Just keep loading it up and there will be no highway safety or transportation bill this year. I’ve seen it, over and over and over again,” he said.

“The merits of Sen. Lee’s amendment — we could probably talk the rest of the day about it,” Latvala added.

“One thing I do believe is that …  taxi companies and transportation networks ought to be treated equally. If this amendment doesn’t provide that, then we shouldn’t adopt it.”

Uber spokesman Javi Correoso said the company “thanks Senator Lee for his support in creating a permanent home for Uber in Florida.”

But, he added, the amendment “can limit access to airports and seaports by requiring a burdensome bidding process that taxi companies and other vehicle for hires would not be subject to.

“In addition, the amendment would eliminate the practice of innovative pilot programs where the ridesharing industry has worked with public entities to create transportation options for hard working, lower income residents traveling back after late night work shifts.”

Rick Scott says he will sign ‘Uber bill’

Gov. Rick Scott tweeted on Monday that he will sign into law a bill creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft.

“I look forward to signing the @Uber/ @lyft bill,” Scott tweeted from his official account, @FLGovScott.

Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, tweeted back, “Many thanks for your leadership, @FLGovScott ! All of us at @Uber are excited to have a permanent home in the Sunshine State.”

Lawmakers had considered legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The Senate finally approved a House measure (HB 221) on a 36-1 vote, with Sen. Jack Latvala the only ‘no’ vote.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger.

When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

Bill to regulate Uber, Lyft headed to Senate floor

A bill that would create a regulatory framework for transportation network companies in Florida cleared the Senate Rules Committee, teeing it up for a vote in the full Senate within the coming days.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill (SB 340) would require Uber and Lyft to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app but hasn’t secured a passenger. While a rider is in the vehicle, they are required to have $1 million worth of coverage.

The proposal also calls on companies to have third parties conduct local and national background checks on drivers.

“Today’s vote signals a major milestone in the effort to ensure every Florida resident and visitor has access to ride-sharing,” said Stephanie Smith, the senior manager for public policy at Uber Technologies, in a statement. “At Uber, we are focused on connecting people and communities, increasing mobility, and this vote brings us one step closer to achieving this.

The bill cleared the committee on a 10-1 vote. It now heads to the Senate floor.

This legislation will give Florida’s residents and visitors easy access to an affordable and reliable transportation option, ultimately providing the state with increased economic opportunity,” said Chelsea Harrison, the senior policy communications manager for Lyft, in a statement. “We look forward to passage by the full Senate.”

A similar bill (HB 221), sponsored by Reps. Chris Sprowls and Jamie Grant, unanimously passed the House Wednesday.

House gets one step closer to passing statewide regs on Uber, Lyft

Legislation to regulate transportation network companies (TNC) in Florida advanced Tuesday on its second reading through the Florida House.

The bill sponsored by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant (HB 221) requires ride-sharing companies to have third-parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers.

“That includes a multistage, multi-jurisdictional background check, a search of the National Sex Offender website, and a review of the public driving history of the applicant,” Sprowls said on the House floor.

Although critics say that the measure should include Level II federal background check requirements, Sprowls said that database is smaller than the one that Uber and Lyft will have to use in Florida. “The National Certified Background check has up to 500 million records,” he said.

The proposal would prohibit from becoming ride-share drivers if they have three moving violations in the prior 3-year period; have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years; or have been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hit and run, or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer within the past five years.

It also calls for drivers to carry insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when picking up passengers. Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage in the case of death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

Amendments proposed by Miami Beach Democrat David Richardson that would require the ride-sharing companies to have a nondiscrimination policy regarding the hiring of drivers were defeated. At one point Sprowls said that he would work to have language added to the bill that would require TNC’s to follow state law on public accommodations.

Richardson said that really wouldn’t work since gays and lesbians are not currently protected under current state law.

Sprowls did amend the bill to make it more compatible with its Senate counterpart (SB 340) sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes. Those changes include authorizing seaports to impose pickup fees on rideshare drivers when picking up or dropping riders from seaports, as long as they do not exceed what that particular port is charging taxicab companies to pay.

The bill has one more reading through to pass the House, while it will be heard in the Rules Committee in the Senate Thursday.

Capitol Reax: Visit Florida funding, Uber, high-speed rail

The Senate Government Oversight and Accountability Committee voted 5-1 to approve a proposal (SB 596) that would allow telecommunications companies to put small wireless communications infrastructure in public rights-of-way.

Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida: “AIF supports legislation to bring technology of the future to Florida, allowing our communities to be a part of the smart cities revolution.  Florida’s economic environment will greatly benefit from this good legislation, allowing new technologically advanced companies to locate here in the Sunshine State.

AIF applauds Senator (Travis) Hutson for championing this legislation and the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee for passing this bill out of its committee today.  SB 596 will allow technology of the future, like smart cities, autonomous vehicles and instantaneous speeds, to become a reality through uniform deployment of small cell technology.”

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee temporarily postponed a proposal (HB 269), which would have established the Florida High Speed Passenger Rail Safety Act.

Brent Hanlon, chairman of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL): “I want to once again thank Representatives MaryLynn Magar and Erin Grall for filing legislation this session to protect citizens from subsidizing high speed rail projects that pose risks to public safety.  We are disappointed that the subcommittee did not debate the bill today, but we respect the legislative process, and look forward to more dialogue about this important legislation in due course.

All Aboard Florida (AAF) is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies.

AAF continues to put the communities of South Florida on the hook for millions in upgrades to enhance safety measures and make a grab for taxpayer subsidies.

We will continue to advocate for legislation that puts public safety first and we know that our elected leaders want the same. This is nothing more than an ill-conceived rail project by a private company that wants to shift costs to the taxpayers.”

The Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee has proposed matching Gov. Rick Scott’s budget proposal of $76 million for Visit Florida, while setting aside $80 million for Enterprise Florida.

Chris Hudson, state director for American for Prosperity-Florida: “The Florida Senate is sending a bad message to their constituents. They are telling the hardworking small business owners that don’t even qualify for the handouts their proposing to sustain by maintaining funding to Enterprise Florida are more important than properly funding real priorities for their communities. The Senate should pick up where the Florida House left off and come together to eliminate corporate welfare by eliminating Enterprise Florida.

The Florida Senate is also wrong to fund Visit Florida with another $76 million dollars. Visit Florida’s lack of transparency and lack of accountability have engulfed the Sunshine State in national embarrassment that should not be rewarded. This failed program needs more than just reform; it should be completely eliminated.

Our grassroots teams will be deployed throughout the state in the districts of Senators who support funding corporate welfare. We will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that Floridians know which members of the legislature support corporate welfare and the programs that give away their tax dollars to private businesses instead of better supporting real priorities like education and infrastructure.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a bill (SB 340) to create a regulatory framework for transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft.

Stephanie Smith, senior manager, public policy for Uber Technologies: “Today’s unanimous vote on Senate Bill 340 by the Senate Committee on Judiciary is a positive indication that Florida lawmakers support the safety, economic, and mobility benefits that come from ridesharing services like Uber.

We are grateful to all of the Senators who voted ‘yes’ on the bill, with special thanks to Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) who continues to be a champion for modern transportation options.”

Logan McFaddin, regional manager of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America: “PCI applauds the Senate Judiciary Committee and Senator Brandes for supporting legislation that addresses the insurance gaps when a driver is engaged in rideshare activity.  PCI and our members believe it is imperative rideshare drivers and their passengers are protected as they travel from point A to point B.

The insurance coverage concerns are significant, especially if ride share drivers use their personal vehicles for this commercial activity but only have personal auto insurance coverage. The standard personal auto insurance policy may not provide coverage if the vehicle is being used for commercial purposes and an accident were to occur.

With model legislation already passing in 45 other states, PCI encourages Florida lawmakers to do the same for Florida and protect the public.”

Uber’s final frontier: Upstate New York

Brian Cook‘s trip to Buffalo to cheer on Princeton’s basketball team in the NCAA Tournament was, for him, a journey back to a simpler time, when hailing a ride meant standing on a corner and waving your hands to flag down a taxi.

“For a 19-year-old, that’s unknown,” said Cook, who flew in from Chicago to see his brother play in Princeton’s first-round game against Notre Dame. “I take Uber everywhere, always.”

Upstate New York, essentially everything outside of the metropolitan New York City area, is Uber’s final frontier: the largest area in the continental U.S. where app-based ride-hailing companies remain banned.

Many in such upstate cities as Buffalo, Rochester, Albany and Syracuse are hoping this is the year that distinction ends, but they will have to persuade the state’s legislature first. Previous efforts have repeatedly foundered, under pressure from the taxi industry and lawmakers who say they want more stringent regulations.

“I can go to New York City, Philadelphia, D.C. and I can utilize the app, but I can’t utilize it in my own city,” said Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, one of nine upstate mayors to recently write to state leaders urging them to approve the expansion.

Currently, Uber and Lyft are banned outside of the New York City area. Every state except Alaska and New York now has statewide ride-hailing regulations — though the service remains unavailable in many rural areas. Austin, Texas, is the nation’s largest city without Uber. The company pulled out after local leaders required drivers to be fingerprinted.

New York’s decision on whether to allow ride-hailing statewide could come within weeks. Supporters and upstate mayors back proposals from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Republican-led Senate but have concerns about legislation in the Democrat-controlled Assembly. That bill would authorize local communities to pass their own regulations on ride-hailing, and impose higher taxes and insurance costs.

But Uber has faced a spate of recent controversies, including allegations that it routinely ignores sexual harassment, video footage of its CEO profanely berating a driver and most recently, accusations that it used data on its users to evade and deceive authorities.

“The headlines about Uber are indicative of a company that does not understand its responsibility,” said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a Democrat and the sponsor of the Assembly bill, which he said is fair to the company while ensuring protections for riders. “Uber has a lot of answering to do. And we need to be certain that we’re writing legislation for an industry and not one company.”

Taxi cab owners say lawmakers should delay ride-hailing regulations because of the allegations against Uber. They’ve long argued that Uber and Lyft should be held to the same standards and regulations as taxi cabs — and drivers should be fingerprinted and subjected to an independent background check.

“This shouldn’t be a matter of just saying, ‘Hey, come on in,'” said John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association.

Uber is betting that March Madness might help tip the debate in its favor. Buffalo is hosting early round tournament games this year, the latest attempt by local leaders to showcase a city working to improve its image and reverse decades of population loss and economic stagnation.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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