“Biggest lobbying operation I’ve seen for a long time. They started early and worked hard.”
That’s how William Miller, a longtime Austin lobbyist who represents the City of Houston, characterized the lawyers and consultants tapped by Uber and Lyft for this Texas legislative session.
The ride-hailing companies’ army of some 40 lobbyists succeeded this week in getting the Texas House of Representatives to approve by a 110-37 vote a bill placing transportation network companies under state control and barring cities from enacting their own regulations.
Houston city leaders oppose the bill, but Miller, the founder of Hillco Partners, expressed little optimism their view will prevail.
Instead, he expects Uber and Lyft to win in the state Senate and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to sign a proposal into law.
Such an outcome will erase the standards Houston and other Texas cities imposed requiring ride-hailing companies to have drivers undergo background checks.
A ‘Pure Industry Bill’
In recent years, Uber and Lyft have stopped serving other Texas cities, including Austin, after those municipalities imposed similarly strict standards for drivers. All those Texas cities’ rules will disappear if state lawmakers, as seems likely, give Uber and Lyft exactly what they wanted.
“It effectively prohibits us from regulating,” said Brie Franco, who is the intergovernmental relations officer for the city of Austin.
“The bill that was drafted was a pure industry bill. That’s what they wanted and that’s what got. It’s done deal,” Miller said.
Among the big lawyer names working for Uber: Robert Miller (no relation to Hillco’s Miller), a partner at Locke Lord and one of Austin’s top lobbyists. He declined to comment for this story and referred questions to the company.
He will be compensated as much as $99,000 for his work for Uber in this legislative session, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commissions.
All together, Uber and its rival Lyft—which are working together to get Texas to join 41 other states that have statewide laws governing their industry—will pay $2 million or more to lobbyists this session, according to records filed with the TEC.
Uber wasn’t sharing more details about that expensive campaign to persuade Texas lawmakers.
“We don’t discuss proprietary information,” Travis Considine, an Uber spokesman, said in an email.
Considine did provide a company issued statement: “It is time to move beyond the inconsistent regulations across the state that stand in the way of transportation innovation and adopt a consistent, common-sense law focused on safety and access to new technology. A statewide solution would allow Uber to expand across the state of Texas and help to bring greater economic opportunity and access to safe, reliable transportation for more Texans.”
For his part, Hillco’s Miller said he was reminded of earlier years when Republicans, who control the Texas legislature, cherished the notion of local control. That mantra has since become obsolete, he said, in the wake of the oil and gas and the ride-hailing companies’ efforts to stop individual cities and towns from setting their own rules, which could reduce corporate revenues.
“No one has used those two words, ‘local control,’ more than Republicans, but that was yesterday. Today, it’s ‘too much local control,’” Miller said. “This win [for Uber and Lyft] captures in a perfect way the spirit of what’s taking place.”
Austin’s Franco also said she wondered if Uber and Lyft, given how much money they have spent on lobbying, might try and remove an amendment tacked onto the House version of the proposal—HB-100—which bars discrimination based on sex but defines sex as a man or a woman, potentially putting transgender folks at risk of being refused service by ride-hailing company drivers. That’s not a very San Francisco move, she said, coming from Uber and Lyft, which are both based there.