In 2015, while both Uber and Lyft tangled with San Antonio City Council and the traditional vehicle-for-hire industry over local regulations, an attempt to legislate rules at the state level for transportation network companies fizzled.
Both companies ceased operations in San Antonio last year and then returned again, operating under a 9-month pilot program where fingerprint background checks, which Lyft and Uber fiercely oppose, were optional. Meanwhile, the companies are fighting similar battles with other cities in Texas, like Austin and Houston, both of which require fingerprint background checks for drivers.
"It's important that we move forward and set the example," City Councilman Roberto Treviño, who helped forge the compromise between the City and the transportation network companies, said during a May 18 Governance Committee meeting. "And I think we're about to for the entire state and possibly the entire country."
Right now, Treviño and his staff are gathering feedback from two public roundtables held last month and will combine that with rideshare data from the San Antonio Police Department, before presenting to City Council during a B-session — after that, the pilot program will go to City Council for a vote.
Treviño's comment followed a national spectacle in the state capital that may set the stage next year for a statewide showdown over how transportation network companies are regulated. On May 7, Austin voters defeated Proposition 1, which would have eased strict regulations on Lyft and Uber, prompting the companies to stop operating, just like they previously did in San Antonio.
However, this fingerprint fight is far from over. Unlike the 2015 Legislature — when a proposal to impose statewide regulations on the companies, which would effectively take regulatory power away from city governments, failed to gain traction — the 2017 Legislature will likely try again, but this time, there's way more support, most vocally from Republicans.
"The issue's not over," Governor Greg Abbott promised during an interview on CNBC after the Austin vote, as reported by The Texas Tribune. "Republicans in the Texas Legislature have already raised proposals coming up in the next session to override the Austin vote."
Abbott was referring to Republican Senator Charles Schwertner, of Georgetown, who reignited statewide-regulation efforts by promising to bring a proposal to the Legislature when it convenes next January.
Those proposals, however, would also supersede San Antonio's compromise, which is working.
But Schwertner says he's taken note of San Antonio's pilot program.
"We're not reinventing the wheel here. There are 30 states that have statutes that are statewide, and there are a lot of good ordinances put forth by a variety of municipalities [across the country]," he said, mentioning the Alamo City. "I'm here for all ideas to fashion the policy for Texas ridesharing."
When asked whether his proposal would include mandatory fingerprinting, Schwertner said he felt there might be a way to make it optional.
"We want to make sure that it's a necessary component, first of all," Schwertner said. "[Fingerprint background checks] may not be as effective as some say."
Texas House Rep. Diego Bernal, who represents an urban slice of San Antonio ranging from Castle Hills to the Downtown area, said he's open to a conversation about statewide regulation. Bernal sits on the House Urban Affairs committee, which may consider any proposal brought to the House of Representatives.
"I think the beautiful thing about the local ordinance, what they've done here, is it is putting it in the hands of the consumer," Bernal said. "And no matter what, whatever is proposed in Austin, the sweet spot and the fair way to do it is to figure something out for the consumer to make an informed decision."
However, Bernal is quick to say he doesn't have a solution. He's just ready for the conversation.
"You have to be dynamic and adaptive. What we have here is a great response to issues that have arisen, and I'm proud of the way that the City, and particularly the way my councilman, Treviño, handled it," Bernal said. "At the very least, San Antonio has a model that can work."
But he will tread with caution when it comes to Republican-backed proposals for statewide regulation of ride-share, because in 2017, there's likely much more on the table regarding state control vs. local control than transportation network companies.
"I think we have to be careful. ... I have no interest in being a part of this sort of conservative wave to eliminate local control for cities," Bernal said, explaining there could be efforts to do away with non-discrimination ordinances. "We already saw the elimination of fracking bans [in Denton in 2015]. So, all of a sudden, being Big Brother is front and center in the conservative playbook. I don't want to contribute to that."
When asked about Schwertner's proposal, Treviño said he believed in local control.
"We believe we crafted a way to allow innovation to exist while empowering communities to have a choice," Treviño said via email from Spain, where he is on a trade delegation with Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council. "We think this model could serve any community that wishes to employ the basic premise of our agreement. We will share the agreement with any community so they may tailor it to their own specific requirements."
But, with a patchwork of local ordinances regulating transportation network companies around the state and Uber and Lyft battling it out with cities over fingerprint background checks, some consistency is needed for consumers, drivers and the companies.
As Bernal notes, finding the solution is necessary because there are real people this conflict affects.
"I think what's lost in the conversation that should be front and center is that one, it's an important transportation option to the people that use it and two, these are real jobs that help people make ends meet and put food on the table," Bernal said.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.