SANTA FE, N.M. — At a recent hearing at the state Capitol, the new ride-booking services Uber and Lyft squared off against the old but politically powerful taxi industry.
The taxi industry won. Uber and Lyft played hard with their own top-shelf lobbyists, but in the end to no avail.
Like many other states, New Mexico is struggling with how to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, which allow people to arrange and pay for rides using smartphone applications.
On the evening of March 19, with less than 48 hours to go in the Legislature’s annual meeting, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up legislation to regulate ride-booking companies differently than taxi companies.
The House had approved the bill by a wide margin, but the measure died in the Judiciary Committee after about 90 minutes of debate because a majority of committee members, including Republicans and Democrats, left the hearing. The committee chairman then shut it down for lack of a quorum.
Several committee members said they left because it appeared the debate was going to continue for significantly more time and it appeared the legislation was doomed for the year.
The taxi industry said the legislation was unfair because it provided for regulation for ride-booking companies that is less stringent than that for taxi companies in such areas as vehicle inspections and drug- and alcohol-testing for drivers.
Supporters argue the legislation provided for immediate suspension of ride-booking drivers suspected of drug or alcohol abuse and required drivers to use cars that meet the same equipment standards as those for private vehicles.
Taxis are regulated by the state Public Regulation Commission under the Motor Carrier Act.
Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, a sponsor of the legislation, said a new law is needed to regulate ride-booking companies in part because they operate differently than taxis. For example, she said, ride-booking drivers aren’t company employees, vehicles aren’t marked, rides cannot be hailed and rates are set by demand.
But Michael Cadigan, an attorney for Albuquerque Cab Co. and former Albuquerque city councilor, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that his client could be forced out of business by ride-booking services as a result of the proposed new law and that, “Government shouldn’t pick winners and losers.”
Others opposed to the legislation: David Jaramillo, lobbyist for the New Mexico Trial Lawyers Association, and
lobbyist and former House Speaker Raymond Sanchez on behalf of cab companies. Sanchez is a brother of Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, also a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those supporting the bill included lobbyist and former Sen. Mickey Barnett on behalf of Farmers Insurance, lobbyist and former Rep. Joe Thompson on behalf of Lyft and the husband-and-wife lobbying team of Dan Weaks and Marla Shoats on behalf of Uber.
The taxi industry won when Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard Martinez, D-Española, shut down the hearing about 30 minutes after Republicans, joined by Democrat Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, blocked a Democratic attempt to table the legislation and end the debate. When Martinez ended the hearing, only he and a couple of other senators were still in the room.
In addition to the ride-booking legislation, other bills scheduled to be heard that night by the Judiciary Committee died because it was the last committee meeting before the legislative session ended March 21.
Youngblood said the death of the ride-booking legislation was “bizarre” because it is unusual for a bill to be killed without a committee expressing a formal opinion in a vote.
Senate Minority Whip William Payne, R-Albuquerque, was among the committee members who were out of the
room when Martinez ended the hearing. He said he had gone to find Sen. Sanchez and see if he could help get debate on the legislation suspended so the committee could move on to other bills.
“It was a late night, people were tired, we had a lot to do and it (the ride-booking legislation) didn’t appear to be going anywhere,” Payne said.
Sen. Sanchez said it had become clear that the legislation was going to continue to tie up the Judiciary Committee.
“Everybody was hoping there would be a compromise,” he said. “Both sides dug their heels in.”
Prior to the end of the hearing, a motion to table the bill had narrowly failed and Youngblood had declined an offer from Martinez to help her work on the bill before the next legislative session if she wanted to withdraw it from committee consideration.
Sen. John Ryan, R-Albuquerque, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he was out of the room when the hearing was shut down because he needed to appear before a House committee.
But, Ryan said, the ride-booking bill appeared to be on its deathbed because of the significant opposition.
Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, said he left the hearing to clear his head and was talking with other committee members in a hallway when the hearing was shut down.
“We weren’t going to make any progress on that bill, and we were going to spend a lot of time on it” if the hearing had continued, Griggs said.
At the time the hearing ended, committee member Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, was attempting to significantly amend the legislation by imposing some rules for taxi companies on ride-booking services.
McSorley had made it clear that opponents were going to fight hard against the bill and that was going to take substantially more time, Ryan said.
“It didn’t look like they were going to let it out of there,” he said.
The debate over regulation of ride-booking companies now shifts back to the Public Regulation Commission, whose options include attempting to regulate ride-booking companies like taxis or setting different rules.
Whatever the PRC does, a court challenge by the losing side – taxis or ride-booking services – appears likely.
Uber and Lyft have been operating for about a year in New Mexico. In September, state District Judge Nancy Franchini in Albuquerque rejected an attempt by taxi companies to shut down the ride-booking services, saying she didn’t want to usurp the powers of the Public Regulation Commission at that time.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.