By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday approved a bill that could potentially take ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft statewide.
The House approved the bipartisan bill overwhelmingly, 97–3, after hours of debate led to a Democratic amendment, which adds more specific non-discrimination rules for the companies.
The bill would transfer regulation of ride-hailing companies, dubbed transportation networking companies in the bill, from the local level to the state level, enabling the companies to operate statewide if the bill is approved by the Legislature and signed into law.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Faulkner, R-Mountain Brook, in the House and Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, in the Senate, faced some opposition from Birmingham-area lawmakers who at first questioned whether city leaders were in support of the bill and later criticized the non-discrimination clause in a new version of the bill subbed Tuesday.
The bill has received the endorsement of the governor and the Senate approved the bill unanimously last week.
Lyft and Uber, the nation’s two most popular ride-hailing companies, operate in 15 medium-to-large cities across the state but were forced to work with those cities on local regulations that allowed them to start offering rides.
The new bill would place regulatory authority in the hands of the Alabama Public Service Commission, a state panel that regulates utilities statewide.
The bill’s sponsors have said smaller cities don’t have the capability of attracting the time and attention of the companies, much less the leverage to negotiate with the two largest ride-hailing companies — effectively sizing their towns out of being serviced by the companies.
Faulkner said Tuesday that Birmingham city leaders have come around to supporting his bill after he and Singleton worked out several compromises with them. The compromises would clarify background check procedures, prohibit on-street hailing and require the companies to display car and drive information in the ride-hailing apps.
Municipalities will be able to opt out and black ride-hailing companies within their city limits if they choose. Faulkner said city officials from Alabama’s five largest cities all approved of the bill.
The original version of the bill, modeled after laws adopted in 45 other states in recent bills, included an explicit non-discrimination section that identified several key protected classes that the companies would need to include in required non-discrimination policies.
The substituted version of the bill that Faulkner brought to the floor Tuesday — the same version approved by the Senate last week — removed those explicit protected classes, opting instead to defer to “all applicable non-discrimination laws.”
Faulkner said adding explicit protected classes was redundant because the bill points to “all applicable laws” including state and federal non-discrimination codes. Lyft and Uber already impose stringent internal non-discrimination policies that go further than existing state and federal law, he argued.
Faulkner said he doesn’t want anyone to discriminate against anybody.
“The bill states, the language states very clearly that they have to comply, that they cannot discriminate, that they have to follow all applicable law,” Faulkner said.
Democrats argued that existing state non-discrimination laws do not provide protections for some groups, like transgender people, gay people and those who live in low-income neighborhoods, potentially allowing drivers and the companies to discriminate against them.
But Faulkner said that was a separate issue entirely.
“If you want to change Alabama’s non-discrimination law, that is something that needs to be done separately,” he said.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, proposed an amendment to reinstate the list of protected classes but it failed on the floor 35-46.
“There’s a whole lot of folks in here that want people to be discriminated against,” she said. “That’s kind of sad.”
Coleman and Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said they feared the companies wouldn’t know which laws to follow or wouldn’t follow the non-discrimination laws at all if it wasn’t explicitly written into the bill.
A Democratic amendment was approved hours later, overwhelmingly, after Faulkner agreed to accept the amendment as friendly. It added specific references to Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But those laws don’t protect individuals from discrimination based on their sexuality or sexual identity.
The bill will need to return to the Senate for a second vote before heading to the governor for her signature.