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U.S. conservatism expands to final frontier: City hall

For decades, a well-funded conservative group has helped state lawmakers across the U.S. write legislation to rein in unions, expand charter schools and lower taxes.

Now, it’s expanding to the final frontier: normally nonpartisan city halls and county governments, which have become a bastion of liberal resistance to President Donald Trump.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is one of the country’s most prominent conservative groups, and its annual convention in Denver last week drew thousands of state legislators and lobbyists for panels on school choice and marijuana legalization, as well as speeches from conservative luminaries like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and former Senator James DeMint.

But as attendees rubbed shoulders with the right’s elite, a few dozen crowded into a small conference room for the fourth meeting of the American City County Exchange, the conservative group’s new local government wing.

The city council project is the brainchild of Jon Russell, a councilman from the Virginia town of Culpepper, population 18,000. He was dissatisfied that the traditional, nonpartisan municipal groups, like the National League of Cities, seemed to constantly think more government was the answer to problems.

“Now we can communicate with 2,500 elected officials across the country that we know share our values and push back against some of the progressivism that’s gotten into cities,” Russell said.

Though the group is still young, it’s notched some significant accomplishments – most prominently helping distribute model legislation to end the automatic deduction of union dues from paychecks that 12 Kentucky counties implemented in 2014 as a precursor to that state becoming the 28th “right-to-work” state.

The American City County Exchange also distributes model legislation on everything from a taxpayer bill of rights that would require a supermajority to raise property taxes to measures requiring that cities explore all available materials to build sewer pipelines. An official at the city council project, Bruce Hollands, is head of the PVC pipe association.

At the Denver meeting, Hollands gave a presentation to the roughly three-dozen attendees on how cities often rely excessively on iron pipes without enough bidding from manufacturers of other types. Representatives of telephone companies gave presentations on new types of cellular service – and the need for different cellular towers – coming online. And lobbyists from Uber and Airbnb touted the virtue of the sharing economy and state legislation that would prohibit cities from regulating it.

The value of states overruling city councils became something of a theme at the meeting, as liberals have hoped cities will pass measures to fight back against Trump’s administration. With Republicans controlling 32 state legislatures, statehouses have tried to prohibit cities from passing tax hikes, increasing the minimum wage or sheltering people who are in the country illegally.

Conservatives traditionally have argued that government closest to the people should be given the most power, but several local officials were reconsidering.

“It’s a tool to protect individual liberty,” said Ellen Troxclair, the lone conservative on Austin’s city council, who cheered when Texas invalidated her city’s regulations of ride-sharing firms. “But if it’s not being used to protect freedom …”

Bryan Harrison, a township supervisor in Caledonia, Michigan, gave the argument a legal spin. “We are subordinate to the state legislature,” Harrison said, arguing states were the essential building block of both federal and local power and could override in either direction.

Those arguments troubled Dallas City Councilman Lee M. Kleinman, even though he’s objected to many stances his own council has taken.

“It’s my local community making a choice,” said Kleinman, who frequently argues to Texas’ GOP-controlled Legislature that it shouldn’t overrule local governments even when Kleinman agrees with the Legislature.

Still, Kleinman, like others at the conference, reported a rise in emotional, hot-button issues at City Hall, from calls to mandate employers provide 15-minute rest breaks to making Dallas a sanctuary city, flouting conservative state lawmakers who passed a law to end that status. “They want to wear the badge – we’re standing up to this Legislature,” Kleinman said.

American City County Exchange members said they felt increasingly nervous and out-of-place in this environment. In an interview, Russell proposed one way to fight back.

He recalled a prior stint on the City Council of Washougal, Washington, a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Environmentalists had persuaded the council to pass a resolution calling for an end to coal shipments through town. Russell fought back with a proposal stating support for the coal industry.

In the end, the nonpartisan council, unaccustomed to fighting with itself, passed what Russell said was a fairly bland resolution trying to accommodate both sides. The lesson: Conservatives just need to push back.

“Seventy-five percent of council members are very pragmatic,” Russell said. “They just need a strong voice from the right to counter the left. When there’s a controversy at council, it tends to get tabled.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Uber celebrates new Key West service with free Key Lime pie

As regulations for transportation network companies go into effect in Florida, Uber is announcing the launch of Key West service beginning midnight Saturday, July 1.

Currently, the company operates throughout the rest of the Florida Keys.

“I’m thrilled that Uber’s first expansion after the statewide ride-sharing law goes into effect will be in our own backyard,” said Miami Republican state Sen. Anitere Flores. “Improving mobility throughout the Florida Keys is essential to helping strengthen our communities and economy. Uber has become a part of the fabric of Florida and I thank them for the work they do to increase transportation and access.”

“With Uber’s launch in Key West Saturday, Florida Keys residents and visitors will now be able to more easily move throughout our communities,” said Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key Largo). “Just as important, our local businesses will benefit from increased accessibility. In just a few short days no matter where you live or visit in Florida, you’ll have access to ride-sharing and I’m proud Key West will be Uber’s first stop.”

“Uber could not be more thrilled to expand to Key West this coming weekend,” said Kasra Moshkani, general manager of Uber Florida. “We thank the Key West community, local leaders, and businesses for their ongoing support. We look forward to helping make transportation safer and more efficient for all Keys residents and visitors alike.”

In anticipation of the July Fourth holiday weekend, Uber will give away free Key Lime Pie, supplied from Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, Friday, June 30, to Miami and Key West app users.

How to “Get Your Key Lime Pie” in Miami:

— App users in the participating areas (map below — Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Downtown/Brickell, Kendall and Miami Beach) can open the app Friday, June 30, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

— Tap on the Key lime pie card on the bottom of the screen.

— Request for your free Key Lime Pie.

— If available, you’ll receive an entire authentic Key lime pie delivered directly to your door!

How to “Get Your Key Lime Pie Slice” in Key West:

— Head to the Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe At 200 Elizabeth Street, Key West, Florida 33040, Friday, June 30, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Both Uber riders and drivers can participate. Show the downloaded Uber rider or driver app, and receive a free slice of chocolate-covered Key Lime pie, while supplies last.

New Uber users can sign up with code “FLAKeys” for a free ride up to $20. First-time users only. For more information on Uber Key West, visit t.Uber.com/KeyWestLaunch.

Rick Scott signs death warrant for Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission

Among the bills Governor Rick Scott signed into law on Tuesday is HB 647, which eliminates of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission by December 31 of this year.

The agency, originally created by a special act of the Florida Legislature in the 1970’s and the only one of its kind in the state, has been shrouded in controversy for years. It’s last executive director,  Kyle Cockreamremains under investigation for his handling of public records.

The PTC had been criticized for years by local lawmakers, but previous attempts to dismantle the agency consistently fell short.

That changed however, after extensive reporting about the agency’s handling of ride sharing services Uber and Lyft ultimately compelled the entire Hillsborough County delegation to agree to a local bill sponsored by Tampa Republican House member Jamie Grant that would dismantle the organization.

“The public has lost complete faith in the ability of this agency to regulate credibly, equitably and efficiently,” Grant declared in announcing his legislation.

The beginning of the end for the agency started in 2010, when Cesar Padilla, then the executive director of the agency, resigned after it was reported that he had been moonlighting as a security guard.

There was also the case of former County Commissioner Kevin White, was busted in 2008 for taking bribes for helping tow company operators to get permits in his role as PTC chair. White ended up serving three years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The PTC caught the attention of lawmakers like Grant and Jeff Brandes after the PTC went after Uber when it introduced its Uber Black limo service during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The PTC shut that effort down quickly.

And then came Uber and Lyft into Hillsborough County in the spring of 2014. As those two companies refused to comply with PTC regulations (as they did in other jurisdictions throughout the country), PTC agents began citing those drivers, leading to court actions and more than two years of fighting before an agreement bringing both companies into compliance occurred last month.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office are scheduled to provide an update to the Board of County Commissioners on Wednesday on how the transition of the duties of the PTC into other parts of Hillsborough County’s government are going. The county is also expected to sign an interlocal agreement with heath governments of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace on regulating for hire vehicles.

Criminal justice reform remains a top priority for Jeff Brandes

Sen. Jeff Brandes said he plans to continue his push for criminal justice reform, advancing a multi-year process to take a closer look at the state’s criminal justice system.

Brandes, who has made criminal justice reform a top priority, was in Washington, D.C. last week for the Right on Crime annual summit. The conservative-leaning organization has been working on criminal justice issues in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida.

Brandes said the key takeaway from the summit was that “many states are struggling with criminal justice reform at the same time.”

“They’re all realizing that the current trajectory they’re on isn’t working,” said Brandes, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “I think one of the things is we’re learning from each other’s experiences. Texas started this years ago, and we’re learning from their experience. We know what is palatable and we know what the outcomes are.”

Brandes said Florida can learn from other states, including Texas, about “what works and what doesn’t.”

“We don’t have to go out and reinvent the wheel,” he said. “They’ve been able to have a meaningful impact and still reduce recidivism and overall crime.”

Gov. Rick Scott announced in 2016 the state’s crime rate was at a 45-year low, dropping to 3.1 percent in 2015. However, the state saw an increase in the number of murders, rapes and motor vehicle thefts during that same time period.

But Brandes said while crime is falling, the number of people in prisons remains static. And Brandes said the state needs to look at issues like sentencing, education, life skills and how to deal with addiction and mental health problems.

“What we know is that most people in jail today are going to get out. Are they going to get out as productive members of society or are they going to get out as better criminals,” said Brandes. “What are we doing (to address) education, life skills, addiction. Are we dealing with those appropriately?”

Brandes proposed a bill (SB 458) to create a 28-member task force to conduct a comprehensive review of the state’s criminal justice, courts and correction system. While the bill received unanimous support in early committee meetings, it didn’t get a vote of the full Senate before the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The St. Petersburg Republican has said he plans to make criminal justice reform a top priority during his term. He told the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists last year that while it wasn’t something his constituents were clamoring for; it was an issue that needs to be addressed.

Brandes didn’t just focus on criminal justice during his trip to D.C. last week. He also met with Rep. Dennis Ross to talk about flood insurance; as well as Uber and Tesla to talk about bills passed during the 2017 Legislative Session.

Governor signs landmark ride-sharing legislation into law

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Tuesday a bill that creates statewide regulations for ride-booking companies, like Uber and Lyft.

“I’m proud to sign this legislation today to make it easier for ridesharing companies to thrive in Florida and help ensure the safety of our families,” said Scott in a statement. “Florida is one of the most business-friendly states in the nation because of our efforts to reduce burdensome regulations and encourage innovation and job creation across all industries, including transportation.”

The legislation, among other things, requires ride-booking companies, like Uber and Lyft, to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury of death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app, but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a passenger, drivers would be required to have $1 million in coverage.

“Uber would like to thank Governor Rick Scott for signing House Bill 221 and for his steadfast support of the ridesharing industry. This law now opens the door for more residents and visitors to access innovative transportation options across all of Florida,” said Kasra Moshkani, the South Florida general manager for Uber. “Since Uber first arrived in Florida three years ago, we have worked with local leaders, safety groups and consumer groups to enhance the communities we serve. For Uber Florida, our priority is making safe and reliable rides easy and affordable — whether it’s for a mother needing transportation after a late work shift, or for a senior who needs to get to and from doctor appointments. Today, with Governor Scott’s signature, we see the culmination of hard work and dedication by so many: from Uber driver-partners and riders to our diverse local partners and community leaders.”

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes in the Senate and Reps. Chris Sprowls and Jamie Grant, it also requires companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. The law pre-empts local ordinances and rules on transportation network companies.

“This legislation will ensure the innovative ridesharing network across Florida continues to thrive,” said Cissy Proctor, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, in a statement. “Helping Florida businesses grow is critical to our economy, and this bill will also empower workers across the state to work when and where they want to meet the needs of their families.”

The law goes into effect July 1.

“This landmark legislation would have never happened without the Lyft community across the state who stood up for the benefits ridesharing brings to their families, businesses and cities,” said Chelsea Harrison, the senior policy communications manager for Lyft, in a statement. “We look forward to seeing Lyft continue to grow and thrive for years to come in the Sunshine State.”

 

It’s the end of the road for the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission

Legislation that would effectively kill the controversial Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission (HB 647) passed in the Florida House on Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Tampa Bay Republican Jamie Grant, was first introduced as a local bill at the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation meeting last December.

Although the PTC has reaped a slew of negative news stories over the past three years in its attempts to regulate ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft in Hillsborough County, widespread antipathy to the organization goes back years, if not decades.

Attempts to end the agency have been discussed by Hillsborough County Republicans stretching back to 2010, when then-Senator Ronda Storms threatened to do so. Grant first talked about ending the agency’s life in the summer of 2013.

Among the previous lowlights that had saddled the PTC came in 2010 when Cesar Padilla, then the executive director of the agency, resigned after it was reported that he had been moonlighting as a security guard.

There was also the case of former County Commissioner Kevin White, who was busted in 2008 for taking bribes for helping tow company operators to get permits in his role as PTC chair. White ended up serving three years at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta.

The PTC caught the attention of lawmakers like Grant and Jeff Brandes after the PTC went after Uber when it introduced its Uber Black limo service during the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The PTC shut that effort down quickly.

Those lawmakers became incredibly irritated with the PTC and its (now former) chairman Victor Crist over the past few years, as Uber and Lyft refused to comply with PTC regulations. That led to PTC agents citing those drivers, leading to court actions and more than two years of fighting before an agreement bringing both companies into compliance occurred last month.

The most recent full-time PTC executive director, Kyle Cockream, resigned at the end of last year.

In February, the Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement confirmed that they were conducting an inquiry into missing texts sent from Cockream’s personal phone and seven other PTC phones, going back to last October. Text messages are considered public records, and deliberately deleting them is a misdemeanor crime under state law.

The PTC was created by the state legislature in 1976 to regulate taxis, limousines, vans and basic life-support ambulances in Hillsborough County. No other such entity exists in the state of Florida.

Tom Lee quietly files amendment affecting Uber, Lyft

State Sen. Tom Lee on Wednesday filed an amendment for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles bill that would regulate the operations of ridebooking services like Uber and Lyft.

The language would prohibit local governments and governmental bodies, including airport authorities, from cutting deal with “transportation network companies” (TNCs) to operate exclusively in their jurisdictions.

The amendment for the bill (HB 545) also prohibits agreements “that provides disparate treatment” to any TNC.

The prohibitions wouldn’t “apply to contracts existing on July 1, 2017,” nor if any deals resulted from “a competitive solicitation process.”

Requests for comment were sent to Lee, who was in a Senate floor session Thursday morning, and to spokespeople for Lyft and Uber.

Also this session, Lee called for an independent audit of the Tampa International Airport‘s expansion project, saying there are too many unanswered questions about how the airport is being run. Airport officials said they’d welcome any audit.

Updated 11 a.m. — The Senate temporarily postponed the bill after Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala warned against overpacking the transportation bill.

Lee had first said he wanted to “ensure the free market we were trying to set up under the original bill.” That refers to the TNC regulatory bill passed this session.

That bill’s sponsor, St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, then said he was “deeply conflicted” over the language because it didn’t address taxi companies.

Finally, Latvala warned: “Just keep loading it up and there will be no highway safety or transportation bill this year. I’ve seen it, over and over and over again,” he said.

“The merits of Sen. Lee’s amendment — we could probably talk the rest of the day about it,” Latvala added.

“One thing I do believe is that …  taxi companies and transportation networks ought to be treated equally. If this amendment doesn’t provide that, then we shouldn’t adopt it.”

Uber spokesman Javi Correoso said the company “thanks Senator Lee for his support in creating a permanent home for Uber in Florida.”

But, he added, the amendment “can limit access to airports and seaports by requiring a burdensome bidding process that taxi companies and other vehicle for hires would not be subject to.

“In addition, the amendment would eliminate the practice of innovative pilot programs where the ridesharing industry has worked with public entities to create transportation options for hard working, lower income residents traveling back after late night work shifts.”

Capitol correspondent Michael Moline contributed to this post. 

Rick Scott says he will sign ‘Uber bill’

Gov. Rick Scott tweeted on Monday that he will sign into law a bill creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft.

“I look forward to signing the @Uber/ @lyft bill,” Scott tweeted from his official account, @FLGovScott. The governor is in Argentina on a trade mission.

Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, tweeted back, “Many thanks for your leadership, @FLGovScott ! All of us at @Uber are excited to have a permanent home in the Sunshine State.”

Lawmakers had considered legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The Senate finally approved a House measure (HB 221) on a 36-1 vote, with Sen. Jack Latvala the only ‘no’ vote.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger.

When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

“On behalf of thousands of Uber driver partners and millions of Florida residents and visitors who rely on ride-sharing, we thank Gov. Scott for his commitment to ensuring our state remains at the forefront of innovation and job creation,” said Javi Correoso, Public Affairs Manager for Uber Florida, in a statement.

“Upon the governor’s signature, Floridians and tourists will have access to a safe, reliable and affordable transportation option,” Correoso added. “We look forward to his official signature on this landmark legislation.”

Bill to regulate Uber, Lyft headed to Senate floor

A bill that would create a regulatory framework for transportation network companies in Florida cleared the Senate Rules Committee, teeing it up for a vote in the full Senate within the coming days.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, the bill (SB 340) would require Uber and Lyft to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app but hasn’t secured a passenger. While a rider is in the vehicle, they are required to have $1 million worth of coverage.

The proposal also calls on companies to have third parties conduct local and national background checks on drivers.

“Today’s vote signals a major milestone in the effort to ensure every Florida resident and visitor has access to ride-sharing,” said Stephanie Smith, the senior manager for public policy at Uber Technologies, in a statement. “At Uber, we are focused on connecting people and communities, increasing mobility, and this vote brings us one step closer to achieving this.

The bill cleared the committee on a 10-1 vote. It now heads to the Senate floor.

This legislation will give Florida’s residents and visitors easy access to an affordable and reliable transportation option, ultimately providing the state with increased economic opportunity,” said Chelsea Harrison, the senior policy communications manager for Lyft, in a statement. “We look forward to passage by the full Senate.”

A similar bill (HB 221), sponsored by Reps. Chris Sprowls and Jamie Grant, unanimously passed the House Wednesday.

House gets one step closer to passing statewide regs on Uber, Lyft

Legislation to regulate transportation network companies (TNC) in Florida advanced Tuesday on its second reading through the Florida House.

The bill sponsored by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant (HB 221) requires ride-sharing companies to have third-parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers.

“That includes a multistage, multi-jurisdictional background check, a search of the National Sex Offender website, and a review of the public driving history of the applicant,” Sprowls said on the House floor.

Although critics say that the measure should include Level II federal background check requirements, Sprowls said that database is smaller than the one that Uber and Lyft will have to use in Florida. “The National Certified Background check has up to 500 million records,” he said.

The proposal would prohibit from becoming ride-share drivers if they have three moving violations in the prior 3-year period; have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years; or have been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hit and run, or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer within the past five years.

It also calls for drivers to carry insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when picking up passengers. Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage in the case of death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

Amendments proposed by Miami Beach Democrat David Richardson that would require the ride-sharing companies to have a nondiscrimination policy regarding the hiring of drivers were defeated. At one point Sprowls said that he would work to have language added to the bill that would require TNC’s to follow state law on public accommodations.

Richardson said that really wouldn’t work since gays and lesbians are not currently protected under current state law.

Sprowls did amend the bill to make it more compatible with its Senate counterpart (SB 340) sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes. Those changes include authorizing seaports to impose pickup fees on rideshare drivers when picking up or dropping riders from seaports, as long as they do not exceed what that particular port is charging taxicab companies to pay.

The bill has one more reading through to pass the House, while it will be heard in the Rules Committee in the Senate Thursday.

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