- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Uber officials tried to convince Wisconsin lawmakers Thursday that a Republican bill creating statewide regulations for ride-hailing companies would allow their business to grow and provide another transportation option for the state.

Robert Kellman, Uber’s Midwest public policy manager, told the state Assembly’s government operations committee during a public hearing that the bill could create a statewide market for the company’s services, particularly in underserved rural areas.

“This bill simply offers a different option for the state of Wisconsin,” Kellman said. “We are very eager to expand.”

Ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft connect pedestrians with private drivers through a smartphone app, competing directly with traditional taxi and limo companies.

So far in Wisconsin local governments have been regulating ride-hailing companies via ordinance. The bill would prohibit such local ordinances. Ride-hailing companies would have to get a $5,000 state license, conduct background checks on drivers and maintain at least $1 million in liability insurance. The proposal also would require companies to adopt policies barring drivers from discriminating against passengers because of race, religion, sex or disability.

The bill has sparked a bitter dust-up between ride-hailing proponents and Wisconsin taxi companies.

Supporters told the committee the measure would eliminate a patchwork of local ordinances and create rides for people in areas that lack taxi services.

“These companies should be encouraged to operate here in Wisconsin,” the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, told the committee.

Kellman said the bill would allow Uber drivers to follow the demand for rides without worrying about crossing government jurisdictions with different standards. For example, an Uber driver in Milwaukee could make runs to Wisconsin Dells, he said.

“This bill turns the app on statewide,” he said.

Opponents insisted the bill would bigfoot local leaders and give ride-hailing companies an unfair advantage over traditional taxi operations, which would still have to abide by tougher local ordinances that can require vehicle inspections, background checks run by police and individual driver permits.

Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, told the committee many people in rural areas wouldn’t be able to use Uber because Internet service isn’t reliable enough to support the app.

She demanded the bill include tougher anti-discrimination provisions and questioned how thorough company-run background checks would be and lamented the loss of local control.

“Allow local government to make this work,” said Subeck, a member of Madison’s common council.

Adam Dries, general manager for Uber in Wisconsin, said Uber drivers tend to be low-income and wouldn’t avoid underserved neighborhoods because they typically live in them. He also said Uber’s prices are cheaper than traditional taxis, which appeal to the poor, and 19 out of every 20 ride requests are accepted.

“The bill would bring safety, innovation and jobs to the state of Wisconsin,” Dries said.

Erik Brekke, an attorney for Madison Taxi, accused lawmakers of “bending over backwards” to help multinational ride-hailing companies such as Uber. He said the taxi sector is extremely competitive and lawmakers could easily tip the balance.

“You change something and you crush an industry just like that,” Brekke said.

The committee was expected to vote on the bill on Wednesday. Approval would clear the way for a vote in the full Assembly.

The state Senate’s government operations committee held a public hearing on an identical version of the bill on Thursday as well. That committee is expected to vote on April 16, setting up a vote in the Senate.


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