One of the oddest actions Gov. John Hickenlooper took during the recent legislative session was a nonaction: His refusal to sign a bill further liberating entry into the taxi business.
House Bill 1316 passed both House and Senate handily, and because Hick declined to sign it or veto it within 30 days of their adjournment it became law. (At the federal level, the president’s refusal to sign a bill when Congress is out of session amounts to a pocket veto.)
It’s a good bill. It eliminates the power of the Public Utilities Commission to consider whether there is a “public need” for a new taxi company. Its only power is to determine if the company has proved its “operational and financial fitness.”
A simple signature would have been much easier. The governor explained his inaction in an explanatory letter that ran as long as a typical veto message, about a page and a half.
By not signing the bill he was apparently trying to appease the taxi companies, whose lobbyists tried very hard for a veto. He theoretically could have gotten away with one since the legislature had adjourned by the time he had to take action. But this was a bill that passed 58-5 in the House and 32-3 in the Senate, and it’s hard to justify vetoing a bill that had so much support.
The bill was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton, acting on behalf of the Communications Workers of America Local 7777, but free-market Republicans were happy to sign on. The CWA, which earlier helped organize Union Taxi, now wants to get a new co-op called Green Taxi started.
Abdi Buni, who assisted Union, is also helping Green, and was just elected its president. He claims he has 800 drivers — already working for existing companies — ready to join because Green’s lease rates will be much lower.
Hickenlooper said the bill was “piecemeal,” and “falls short of the comprehensive review” needed of existing taxicab regulations.
If that were the standard he applied to every bill that crossed his desk, he’d sign almost nothing. Virtually every bill represents some sort of compromise. The need for refinement of the laws is what keeps the legislature coming back year after year, like it or not. You take what you can get and come back for more.
The letter reflects the governor’s schizophrenic approach to markets in general and taxis in particular. In 2009, while still mayor of Denver, he wrote a letter to the PUC trying to squelch the application of Mile High Cab for a permit. He claimed the recent entry of Union Taxi had flooded the streets and encouraged “general unruliness” at cab stands near hotels and restaurants. Mile High has since been issued an operating permit and isn’t causing more riots at hotels.
Hickenlooper has come a long way since then. Recognizing the entry of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft into the business, the governor said, “It is not the role of government to stand in their way to compete in this large and competitive market…. The ultimate judges of market supply should be Colorado consumers, not a cumbersome, government-imposed standard.”
Sounding like Rand Paul, he then goes on to complain about “regulatory imbalances and government-enforced market inefficiencies” that have been imposed on existing taxi companies.
But then he complains about “insufficient protections” for the disabled community, as though providers wouldn’t want to serve that market too. “Finally, we want to consider the comprehensive set of regulations to ensure we have a fair and dynamic market for all companies offering transportation options,” he wrote.
It‘s those “comprehensive regulations” that caused all the trouble in the first place.
The taxi lobbyists, when soliciting votes against H.B. 1316, circulated a memo to lawmakers about all the things the bill doesn’t deregulate for their industry: Pricing freedom, safety inspections, the number of vehicles allowed per operating certificate, insurance requirements (as it happens, Uber and Lyft must carry more insurance than taxis), and worker’s comp coverage.
Worthy goals, but do the taxis really want complete deregulation? If they got it, they’d have to cut their lease rates considerably.
There’s one area where taxis could gain an edge over Uber and Lyft: So-called “street hails.” Lawyer-lobbyist Mike Feeley, who grew up in New York City, said he was “shocked” to discover that he couldn’t hail a cab on the street when he came to Denver. You had to go to a hotel or call one up on the phone.
Street hails are regulated by cities, not the PUC, and for decades Denver prohibited them, ostensibly for safety reasons. The rule was lifted somewhat in time for the Democratic National Convention in 2008, but there are still restrictions and you rarely see street hails.
There should be more. This is one area where the taxis can handily defeat Uber, because taxis are well marked and you know what you’re getting when you hail one. What’s more, you can pay cash. Uber’s business model provides an app that enables the driver and the passenger to recognize each other, even though the car is unmarked, and forbids cash transactions.
The revolution in ground transportation has just begun. Denver and other cities should encourage street hails so that the taxis can compete more effectively against Uber and Lyft.
Or would the Regional Transportation District — which, as the old joke goes, loses money on every sale but tries to make up for it in volume — complain about its riders being siphoned off? That’s a subject for another day.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes twice a month for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com.