Fingerprints fail in Senate Uber bill
Forry chastises those who say the measure is discriminatory
AFTER AN EXHAUSTIVE debate that dragged on for nearly five hours, the state Senate passed Uber-friendly regulations for the runaway ride-hailing industry but not before beating back an impassioned plea by the chamber’s only black member to require fingerprints for background checks on drivers to ensure safety of passengers.
“Fingerprinting is not a form of harming [transportation network companies,]” said Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, the Dorchester Democrat who introduced the amendment. “It is a way to stop criminals and sex offenders from getting behind the wheel.”
Several opponents of Forry’s amendment argued fingerprinting can be discriminatory, pointing to studies that show minorities have a higher incidence of involvement with law enforcement and thus would be more likely to show up in databases. Forry, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, pointed out those arguments carry little weight with her and her constituents.
“As a black senator in this chamber, as a senator of color in this chamber, we black and brown people, we care about public safety, too,” she said.
Forry dismissed the arguments, chiefly by Uber, that the company was concerned for minorities, citing questions from reporters to company officials about their diversity.
“Let’s look at their leadership team, let’s look at the staff, let’s look at the board,” said Forry, who voted for the bill despite her misgivings about the lack of fingerprinting. “When reporters asked, what was the answer? Crickets. They know they don’t have black and Latino people.”
While opponents called the provision onerous for an emerging industry, Sen. Barbara L’Italien of Andover, whose husband drove for Uber for a brief period, said fingerprints are required in a number of areas such as daycares, health care aides, and teachers so there are more than 30 sites around the state that can collect and process the prints.
“Fingerprints are the gold standard for background checks,” said L’Italien, “A fingerprint does not lie. A fingerprint does not allow you to change identities. You cannot change your fingerprint, you can change your name to fake your identity.”
Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, who was among the 24 senators who voted against the amendment versus the 14 who voted in favor, said the bill is silent on fingerprinting and suggested the Department of Public Utilities, which will be charged with implementing regulations, can require them if they deem it necessary.
Uber and Lyft have pulled out of some cities such as Austin, Texas, that have enacted fingerprinting measures though they have remained in others that have large populations. Boston, according to Uber, has the deepest penetration of service of any metropolitan area and has about 20,000 drivers now.
Chris Taylor, Uber’s general manager in Boston, said before the vote the state would be an outlier if it required fingerprinting.
The Senate bill also includes a 10-cent per ride levy to be paid by the companies that will go into a municipal transportation infrastructure fund that can be used by cities and towns to maintain roads or mitigate losses by taxi drivers who are drowning in debt because of the cost of medallions they were forced to buy to operate. The money would be distributed through a formula based on the origination of the ride.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester lambasted the creation of the levy and “slush fund,” declaring it business as usual by Senate Democrats and saying it would stifle innovation and technology in the state.
“Here we go again,” said Tarr. “We see a new industry in Massachusetts, and our instinct is let’s tax it at the first opportunity… Massachusetts taxing innovation is like Florida putting an additional tax on citrus.”
The Senate debate comes after nearly a year of increasing tension between the ride-hailing industry and its supporters and the embattled taxi industry, which is being pummeled by the increase in transportation network companies while being hamstrung by regulations that do not apply to Uber, Lyft, and others. Gov. Charlie Baker had introduced legislation that lightly regulated the industry, calling for lawmakers to allow for growth of an emerging technology.
Cab drivers rallied outside the State House prior to the vote and lobbied senators to try to get them to adopt some of the amendments they said would level the playing field. Though most of the amendments taxi drivers and owners supported failed, they got one bone tossed to them from senators. The bill sets up a task force that will study the effects of the ride-for-hire industry on cabs and an amendment orders the panel to explore the possibility of dropping the radio-dispatch mandate for cabs and allowing flexibility to lower fares.The Senate bill now goes to a conference committee with House members to reconcile differences between the two measures by the end of July. The ride-hailing industry had favored the Senate version, mostly because it left them in charge of background checks while the House version requires a state background check. But an amendment brought the Senate measure in line with the House by requiring a state-level background check for driver certification.
The House bill does not include the 10-cent levy. The House bill also bars the transportation network drivers from picking up passengers at the state convention center in South Boston for five years, which was built in part through levies on the cab industry but the Senate does not include that restriction. Both measures leave in place regulations by Logan Airport that only allow licensed cabs and livery drivers to pick up fares at terminals there. Uber can pick up passengers with its Uber Black service. Both bills restrict so-called surge pricing during declared emergencies.