Uber drives through Alaska Senate; lawmakers vote 14-5 on bill that advances to House

Uber and Lyft may soon arrive on a street near you.

In a 14-5 vote Thursday evening, the Alaska Senate approved Senate Bill 14, which proposes to allow “transportation network companies” to operate in Alaska. In other words, companies like Uber and Lyft, which allow people to hail rides with a cellphone application, would have permission to work here.

“This is a simple way to help move our state forward in this time of recession,” said Sen. Mia Costello, R-Anchorage and sponsor of the bill.

Ride-sharing applications like Uber and Lyft treat their workers like independent contractors rather than employees. Drivers supply their own cars and work on their own schedule, rather than scheduled shifts.

“Rideshare is a nimble form of self-employment,” said Costello, who said the bill could “change the whole paradigm of community transportation for the better.”

Nevertheless, the idea has its opponents. Taxi companies and drivers have been particularly staunch in their opposition. Teamsters Union Local 959 has also opposed the measure. Ride-sharing programs are seen as competition for traditional taxi drivers, though they are treated slightly differently by Alaska law.

Under the new bill, drivers working for ride-sharing companies are forbidden to stop at the curb to pick up passengers who simply raise a hand. They also can’t pick up someone who calls for a ride. Any ride-sharing driver must work only through a smartphone application.

“Taxis will have to compete, but they’re a different model of service,” Costello said.

Strong opposition also came from Senate Democrats who said the bill approved by the Senate saps local governments of control. SB 14 includes a clause forbidding local governments from enacting restrictions tighter than the Legislature does. The Municipality of Anchorage approved an ordinance enacting some restrictions last week. Sen. Tom Begich, D-Anchorage, said that ordinance would be overridden by the Senate’s action.

“If you are voting for this bill, you are voting against the interests of the Anchorage Assembly and what they have chosen to do,” he said.

The City and Borough of Juneau also has voiced objections to the idea that it will be unable to regulate Uber and Lyft in the capital city.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, offered an amendment that would have put ride-sharing services under local sales taxes. That amendment failed 4-15.

Democrats offered 24 amendments to the bill; two were adopted. Ride-sharing drivers cannot be registered sex offenders, and they must notify their employer if they’re convicted of a crime or violation.

Some of the Democratic concerns may yet be addressed in the House, which has been considering a companion measure, House Bill 132.

That bill, under consideration in the House Labor and Commerce Committee, has been amended to include the sales tax provision, and the Senate’s version would likely see similar amendments when it arrives in committee.

The Senate’s vote is a mile marker for ride-sharing companies, not a finish line. Last year, the Senate passed a bill allowing Uber and Lyft, but the House labor committee failed to advance the bill, which died.

Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, and this year’s committee chairman, said the same thing will not happen again this year.

“In regards to HB 132, I have no intention to hold this bill in committee,” he said by email. “This is an issue strongly desired by Alaskans and our goal is to make sure it works for Alaska.”

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com and call 419-7732.


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