Taxi drivers push for parity

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BOSTON >> A day before the Massachusetts Senate is set to debate its version of legislation that would regulate the ride-for-hire industry, taxi drivers converged on Beacon Hill to lobby senators on a series of amendments they said would strengthen passenger safety.

Backing amendments relating to driver fingerprinting and background checks, insurance requirements and special license plates, the cab drivers also described such provisions as steps toward putting their businesses on an even footing with the so-called transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.

"We believe that we have safety on our side and law enforcement, and we're hoping that the Senate and the House will be able to get together and add the fingerprint background check amendments to the bill," said Scott Solombrino, a spokesman for the Ride Safe Massachusetts coalition of taxi and livery drivers.

WATCH:Taxi drivers and advocates gathered Tuesday ahead of a scheduled debate in the Senate on ride-hailing legislation.

Senators have filed 54 amendments to the ride-for-hire bill (S 2371) scheduled to be taken up on Wednesday. Two amendments involve driver fingerprinting, which has become a flashpoint in the debate between taxi companies and the newer, app-based ride-hailing companies that compete with them for passengers.

The Senate bill would create a new division within the Department of Public Utilities to oversee transportation network companies. The bill charges the companies with conducting background checks on their drivers and issuing decals to display on their vehicles. It would also levy a 10-cent-per-ride assessment on ride-hailing companies, and require the companies to offer a feature in their apps through which passengers could tip drivers.

Neither the Senate bill nor the version that passed the House in March requires fingerprinting of drivers, a measure that Cheryl Horan of Somerville's Green and Yellow Cab Company said was a "critical" piece for taxi drivers.

"I just think that fingerprinting is the most innovative, gold-standard background check that you can do, and I almost find it odd that a company that falls under the umbrella or uses the parachute of innovation . . . would not want to use the most innovative background check possible," Horan told the News Service.

Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry has filed five amendments, including one that would require driver fingerprinting and another that would allow municipalities to impose their own fingerprinting requirements.

"I'm hoping that my colleagues will recognize the importance of adding another tool around public safety issues," Forry, a Dorchester Democrat, told reporters after speaking to the taxi drivers. "And I think fingerprinting, whether it's mandated statewide or really allowing municipalities to add additional requirements around public safety, is important."

Uber and Lyft, the two most prominent ride-hailing services, have staked out a strong opposition to fingerprinting, notably halting their operations in Austin, Texas after the passage of an ordinance requiring fingerprint checks.

Earlier this month, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Sen. Jamie Eldridge -- who led a working group that developed the Senate's version of the bill — outlining concerns over fingerprinting. Holder wrote that requiring fingerprint-based background checks for non-law enforcement purposes can have "a discriminatory impact on communities of color."

Because checks based on the FBI's Criminal Justice Information System draw from records that do not always include whether a person was charged or convicted, "a fingerprint-based check can prevent people from getting a job even if they were never found guilty of a crime," Holder wrote.

Holder, who left his post with the Obama administration in February 2015, now works at Covington & Burling, a law firm which has advised Uber in California.

Some of the taxi drivers who gathered at the State House Tuesday wore yellow T-shirts with an image of a fingerprint on them, while others sported shirts with the slogan, "Same jobs, same rules."

The taxi drivers also support a Sen. Thomas McGee amendment that would call on the Registry of Motor Vehicles to issue "designated Transportation Network Company Vehicle Registration and license plates," and a Sen. Barbara L'Italien amendment that would require state officials to approve driver applications.

Other amendments filed by senators include proposals from both Sen. William Brownsberger and Sen. Kenneth Donnelly to strike the requirement for an in-app tipping platform, and a Sen. John Keenan amendment that would prohibit cash tips.

Sen. Vinny deMacedo has filed two amendments that would allow the Department of Public Utilities more time to implement the regulations called for in the bill.


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