State Capitol denizens have a code name for bills that are truly awful. They call them “snakes.” It’s an apt moniker because such bills tend to slither quietly through the legislative process without the press and public taking notice … until it’s too late.
Last year, transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft pushed a notorious “snake” bill that would have given loads of protection to TNCs but virtually none to passengers. The bill cleared the House easily but died in a Senate committee – after it garnered media and public attention, which is the best way to kill a snake bill.
This year, the TNCs are back with another snake that’s just as dangerous. For starters, Uber and Lyft convinced House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, to author their bill. Barras is a powerful lawmaker and an honorable guy. It’s a shame his good name is attached to HB 749.
I have nothing against TNCs. I use Uber regularly, in fact, because I know that my city requires strict background checks of drivers and offers strong protections for passengers. Barras’ bill would remove those protections and instead protect Uber and Lyft – and bar local governments from imposing stricter protections for passengers.
That’s only part of what makes Barras’ bill a snake.
For starters, it was filed more than two weeks after the session began, which helped it slither under the media’s radar. Second, it puts the state Department of Agriculture, not the Public Service Commission, in charge of regulating TNCs. Do you feel safer knowing that your TNC driver is regulated by the folks who regulate cows, chickens and pine trees?
Barras’ bill requires initial criminal background checks of drivers – but not drug testing or fingerprints, which allow more extensive checks. Worse, after the initial background check, TNCs would only have to do additional checks every two years. A driver could pass an initial check, then beat up his wife or girlfriend days later and continue to pick up riders for almost two years without anyone knowing he has a domestic abuse arrest. Or worse.
If you think that’s farfetched, check out whosdrivingyou.org/incidents. It’s scary.
Barras’ bill also pulls an end run around the state’s Public Records Law, which protects people’s right to know about problem drivers. “The bill allows the Department of Agriculture to only ‘visually inspect’ records once a year and does not provide for how those records are selected,” says Scott Sternberg, attorney for the Louisiana Press Association. “It further designates these records as ‘confidential.’ … This appears to be an intentional attempt to keep physical records from being public records requested by the people.”
Ironically, Barras’ bill states that the Legislature’s intent is to “protect and promote the safety and welfare of the residents of Louisiana.” A careful reading of the bill shows that HB 749’s true intent is to protect and promote Uber and Lyft, not the residents of Louisiana.
To no one’s surprise, Barras’ bill sailed through the House. It is now before the Senate Judiciary A Committee, where, hopefully, it will receive the public and media scrutiny that it warrants – and get stomped as all snake bills deserve.