With eyes on 2015 legislative session, Uber retains Ballard Partners

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From the capital in Tallahassee to the city halls of Miami, Orlando and Tampa, one of the most controversial public policy issues is what to do about ride-sharing services like Uber.

Uber uses a mobile application to connect riders with vehicles for hire. The San Francisco-based company has run into opposition from taxi industry groups, which accuse it of lowering prices to knock out competition.

Acting as a roadblock to Uber’s growth were outdated regulations such as base charges for limousine services — $50 in Tampa and $125 in Miami – and wait times, which in the Miami-Dade region is one hour.

The company fought and lost a battle in Miami-Dade in March to ease restrictions that forbid it from operating in the county, leading the company to take its fight directly to Tallahassee. Uber sought to file bills that would override the local regulations that impede its operation in Miami.

The issue came to a head during the 2014 session of the Florida Legislature when some Tampa Bay lawmakers, most notably state Senator Jeff Brandes and Representative James Grant, pushed legislation that would prevent local authorities from setting minimum fares and minimum wait times.

Blocked by powerful Senate President Designate Andy Gardiner (who represents tourist-rich Central Florida, the home of Mears Transportation Group), the legislation died a slow death. This despite a well-organized, heavily visible lobbying and public relations campaign powered by several tech-savvy governmental affairs firms and PR shops, including The Advocacy Group at Cardenas Partners, The Fiorentino Group, Liberty Partners of Tallahassee, On 3 Public Relations, and RSA Consulting.

Since the end of session, Uber has not quietly into the night. Instead, it has doubled-down on its efforts to break into several markets, fighting legal and grassroots campaigns in a half-dozen Florida cities.

Leading on-demand ridesharing services, such as UberX and Lyft, have been operating in Tampa since April, even with strong opposition from Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission Executive Director Kyle Cockream.

Claiming they operate without city certification, Cockream has declared that the UberX drivers are violating the law. PTC officers soon began issuing citations to drivers of both companies in the months the companies starting servicing Tampa.

In September, Uber launched a campaign of direct mailers throughout Tampa, calling out the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission—the group behind a series of anti-ridesharing billboards — for “ignoring the pleas of citizens” who want opportunities to get around town cheaply and efficiently.

At the same time, Miami-Dade County Commissioners delayed a final decision on the ride-sharing debate when it shelved passing new rules overseeing for-hire vehicles. After launching in Miami this summer, the county had begun impounding Uber cars and fining drivers. Since then, Uber began service in nearby Broward and Palm Beach counties and are also eyeing an expansion to Fort Myers.

What Uber’s plans are for the 2015 legislative session is still unclear, especially with most visible opponent — Gardiner — now in charge of the Senate. Except, sources tell me that Gardiner may have told Uber’s supporters he would give its bill a fair shot during the next session.

Enter Brian Ballard of Ballard Partners, one of the state’s largest government affairs firms. On Monday, Ballard registered to represent Uber before the Legislature — the clearest indication yet that the ride-sharing company plans to take another swipe at the apple next year.

Ballard’s hiring sets up an epic lobbying showdown between his firm and two other lobbying powerhouses, Southern Strategy Group, which represents Mears, and Ron Book PA, who reps the Miami-Dade Limousine Association.

With those three firms engaged on this issue, one might say the fight over what to do about Uber is now a fight among the state’s uber lobbyists.



Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.