Clancy Dubos: Newton's 1st law of bad government
Sir Isaac Newton reduced much of what we know about the universe to handful of precise mathematical formulas. Good thing Sir Isaac isn’t around today to try to make sense of the Louisiana Legislature. He’d surely go mad.
Or perhaps, upon noticing the extravagance with which hordes of unctuous lobbyists are pushing a bill to regulate web-based transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, he might be moved to formulate his First Law of Bad Government: A proposed law’s awfulness is geometrically proportional to the number of lobbyists hired to secure its passage.
That is surely the case with House Bill 527 by Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, which might otherwise be called the No Lobbyist Left Behind Bill.
HB 527 is no doubt the handiwork of Uber and Lyft, which have promoted similar bills in other states. The two companies are international outfits that use smartphone apps to arrange what would otherwise be taxicab rides in a growing number of cities. Unlike taxicabs, however, Uber and Lyft want to avoid local regulation at all costs — and they are sparing no expense toward that end.
In the current Louisiana legislative session, Uber and Lyft have hired so many registered schmoozers to pass Havard’s bill that it’s difficult to navigate the legislative halls without bumping into one in the act of puckering up. And make no mistake, HB 527 is a very bad bill.
At face value, there’s nothing wrong with the state regulating TNCs. As their lobbyists are quick to note, it would level the playing field statewide for mobile app-based outfits like Uber and Lyft. But Havard’s bill goes much further than that — and in the wrong direction.
There are at least four measures by which HB 527 is an awful bill:
First, its regulatory provisions are a sham. HB 527 places TNC regulatory responsibility with the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry rather than the Louisiana Public Service Commission. That’s not a misprint. The state’s experts on eggs, milk, cotton and pine trees would regulate internet-based cab services in Louisiana’s urban areas. To justify that charade, the bill magically declares TNCs not to be taxis, for-hire vehicles, or “common carriers,” even though they perform the same function as taxis and limos. (Despite such legislative legerdemain, rest assured you WILL be charged if you use Uber or Lyft.) Worse yet, most of the Ag Department’s regulatory efforts would be collecting a puny fee from Uber and Lyft, whose main goal quite obviously is to escape already established — and far more thorough — regulations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and elsewhere.
Second, the promised treasure trove of fees generated by state regulation is an illusion. New Orleans, which generates by far the most TNC traffic, has a home rule charter and a taxicab ordinance that predates the 1974 Constitution. That makes it highly possible, if not likely, that HB 527 will either be declared unconstitutional or inapplicable to the Big Easy.
Third, HB 527 poses a very real danger to public safety. It contains no provisions for drug testing or fingerprinting TNC drivers. In fact, at the urging of Uber and Lyft’s lobbyists, House members rejected amendments calling for such provisions. The bill does require criminal background checks — every two years. Meanwhile, two Baton Rouge Uber drivers were recently busted for DWI — one of them with a passenger on board.
Fourth, HB 527 makes a mockery of accountability and transparency. The bill mentions annual audits, but Uber and Lyft — not the state — would hire auditors to check their numbers. After those “audits” are done, local governments could inspect but not get copies of them. The legislative auditor, whose job it is to audit all entities that receive public funds, likewise could not get copies of the audits. Worst of all, the audit findings and virtually all other information about the TNCs and their operations would be specifically exempted from the Louisiana Public Records Act, which means the public would have no way of knowing if something is amiss.
If you think these provisions are bad, think about this: The original version of HB 527 was worse. Much worse.
Sadly, HB 527 has been grossly under-covered by the state’s political media. That has played into the TNCs’ hands, but hopefully that will soon change. And hopefully, voters will take notice of just how dangerous HB 527 is and tell their senators (who now have the bill before them) to vote against it.
Don’t let Uber and Lyft’s phalanx of lobbyists deter you from speaking out, because the one thing no amount of money or lobbying can overcome is a mob of angry constituents.
Newton might even call that his First Law of Good Government.
Clancy Dubos is the political editor of Gambit of New Orleans.