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Uber bill greenlighted by House transportation panel

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State Rep. Matt Gaetz successfully steered legislation to formally legalize “transportation network services” like Uber through the House Transportation & Ports Subcommittee on Tuesday.

Debate on the bill — heated at times — lasted about an hour and featured an unusual aspect identified by committee Chairman Tom Rooney:

“This has got to be the first bill in five years that I’ve seen where every member debated the bill,” he said, just before putting the bill to a question. The bill passed by a 9-4 vote, with the panel’s Democrats, including Ranking Member Bobby Powell, withholding their support.

That lively and contentious debate was as it should be, according to Gaetz.

“This ought to be the way committees are run,” said the third-term representative, before going on to recap the committee members’ valid concerns about his bill’s language — and dismissing what he saw as invalid concerns.

“Rep. Hager is right; we can do better than we’ve done about providing clarity about when different policies go into effect,” conceded Gaetz regarding some confusion about when commercial driver insurance — mandated in the bill and by Uber policy — ends and where a driver’s personal passenger coverage begins.

A handful of members cautioned that such ambiguities such as when exactly a driver is considered “engaged in commercial activity” and when he or she is simply driving on their own time, and hence covered by their own insurance, might end up being settled in the courts via costly litigation.

On the other hand, concerns about a “level playing field” upon which Uber would compete with the taxi cab industry are not meaningful, according to Gaetz: “When you build a better mousetrap, you’re entitled to an advantage in my view.”

Gaetz has taken up the Uber torch in the House in once-and-future state Rep. Jamie Grant‘s stead as Grant awaits a special election in District 64. Gaetz is taking on the issue along with state Sen. Jeff Brandes, the best-known advocate for ridesharing in the Florida Legislature.

Speaking against the bill was Eric Poole of the Florida Association of Counties, who implored the panel to give localities more time to regulate the emerging technologies to their own liking.

“Counties recognize that this technology is not going away,” said Poole. “What counties are struggling with is how to balance our primary responsibilities of ensuring that health, safety and welfare are protected with this new technology. Have some patience with the local governments.

Americans for Prosperity lobbyist Skylar Zander and Michael Cantens of Corcoran & Johnston were among those who signaled their support for the bill, as was the recently onboarded Public Policy Associate Cesar Fernandez, who testified on behalf of Uber.

Fernandez’s most dogged interlocutor was Democratic state Rep. Barbara Watson, who appeared to ask something of a “gotcha” question when she inquired as to whether the proposed plan would comply with Florida’s state vehicle inspection policy, waited for his affirmative answer, and then pointed to the fact that Florida no longer conducts annual state vehicle inspections. Watson voted against the bill, but acknowledged the fact that today’s transportation regulatory framework is “stuck in the 1980s.”

The bill now moves on to House Economic Affairs. Brandes’ Senate companion, SB 1326, has yet to be taken up in its first stop in the Regulated Industries Committee.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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