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Why it’s taking Harrisburg forever to legalize UberX and Lyft in Philly

Months of amendments mean the bill is three times larger than the fall 2015 version.

Pennsylvania House leadership is confident a bill will pass that finally legalizes UberX and Lyft in the City of Philadelphia, permanently. In fact, Steve Miskin, the spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, tells Billy Penn they are hopeful a vote will take place next week, when the House gets back in session.  

That timetable sounds amazing for or any Philadelphian who’s tired of — technically! — breaking the law to get an easy, cheap ride. But it’s only believable if the legislature and ride-sharing lobbyists are finally finished with a year’s worth of dissecting and amending what should be the rare bipartisan slam dunk.

This bill, Senate Bill 984, passed the Senate nearly a year ago and before then existed in the form of at least three other bills that never got out of committee. Senate Bill 984 started out at 35 pages addressing how things like insurance, background checks and car safety would apply to ride-sharing companies. When it passed the Senate it had been extended to 45 pages. By the time it got through the House Consumer Affairs Committee, it had been extended to 107 pages and included a roundabout process of revenue collection, basically ensuring the Philadelphia School District wouldn’t get a cut of any tax money. And now, five months after it easily passed committee, Chairman of the House Consumer Affairs Committee Bob Godshall says the bill has some 199 more amendments. The House will be looking at a bill completely different than what it was expected to vote on in May, with the situation in Philly with the PPA — as always — causing the greatest complications.  

As one source close to the legislation put it, the ride-sharing bill is the classic example of a bill so good that everybody wants to get their hands on it and add something of their own. That essentially is why it’s October 2016 and we’re still waiting for UberX and Lyft to be technically legal here, in the fifth-largest city in the United States.

The first attempts to legalize ride-sharing came back in summer 2014, months before UberX launched in Philadelphia. State Sen. Wayne Fontana introduced Senate Bill 1457 and state Rep. John Maher introduced House Bill 2468. Those bills never made it out of committee in the 2013-14 term.

The next year, Fontana came back with Senate Bill 447. But there was a gaping problem: His bill didn’t include Philadelphia. This was not pleasing to the ride-sharing companies, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Fontana’s tale that two lobbyists approached state Sen. Camera Bartolotta with a draft for a bill that included Philly and would kill his (Uber has spent about $650,000 on lobbying Harrisburg since 2014). Fontana’s bill never made it out of committee. Bartolotta’s finally went the distance in the Senate last November. But now it sits.

Some of these changes clarified facets of the bill regarding insurance, drivers and the definitions of ride-sharing companies. Others were more controversial. Originally the PPA was set to receive 1 percent of gross revenue and pass it along to the State Treasurer’s Office, which would then distribute ⅔ of that revenue to the Philadelphia School District. The bill that got of the House committee was amended for the PPA to collect $4 million (based on collecting 1.7% of gross receipts) until the School District gets anything. Barring a steep rise in revenue for Uber and Lyft, the School District will likely see nothing.

Godshall, a Republican who represents Montgomery County, says he “gutted” Bartolotta’s bill, largely so it could better work in Philadelphia. After the Consumer Affairs Committee moved the bill on May 4 he expected the House to vote on it later in the week.

“We had agreement from the companies,” he said, “agreement of everybody when we moved the bill. But the bill wasn’t run. Now they’re running it, and I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For the last five months the bill has collected dust as a crisis erupted at SEPTA, the DNC came and went, the PPA removed its executive director over a sexual harassment scandal and a judge ordered Lyft and UberX to cease and desist operating in Philadelphia. Miskin would only say the long delay has occurred because “we have been trying to reach consensus.” Asked for specifics, he said over email it’s more difficult to get hundreds of House members in line than dozens of Senate members.

With the dozens of amendments added since May, the bill is likely going to be more complicated and, Godshall said, less favorable to the ride-sharing companies. He said certain members “put 30 or 40 amendments on to try and kill” the bill over the situation with cabs in Philadelphia.

“If they can do something better with the cabs and so forth in Philly then so be it,” said Godshall, adding that he has sympathy for the cab drivers. “At the same time when we passed this thing on the 4th of May it was a good deal.”

Two issues are bound to be the Philadelphia School District and ADA accessibility. A temporary measure passed in July that legalized UberX and Lyft gave the School District ⅔ of 1 percent of the companies’ gross revenue, as was stipulated in the original Senate bill. Ronald Blount, the chairman of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania who led the lawsuit against the PPA that temporarily shut down UberX and Lyft, said he expects last week’s ruling from the Philly judge to spur the House to take ADA matters into greater consideration.   

And if these complications lead to yet more changes to the ride-sharing bill it would have to be sent back to the Senate for another vote. The House meets for six days in October and two days in November. The Senate meets for six days in October and one in November.

After more than two years of delayed action, they’ll have to pass something last minute. Godshall’s not exactly sure what it will end up looking like but expects the near-universal approval of UberX and Lyft to finally get Pennsylvania to legalize them. 

“There’s enough pressure,” he said, “enough sympathy for ride-sharing to pass.” 

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