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background checks

White and Valdez call for sensible gun control measures

Good.

Andrew White

The recent Florida school shooting is spurring the Democratic gubernatorial field to press for new firearms restrictions, looking to draw a contrast with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the massacre — and touching on a sensitive subject in gun-loving Texas.

Democratic hopeful Andrew White was the most outspoken Monday, traveling to Austin to meet with local members of Moms Demand Action, a national group pushing for laws to prevent gun violence. Speaking with reporters while being flanked by the moms afterward, White invoked recent remarks from Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting earlier this month at the Parkland, Florida, high school that left 17 people dead.

Lupe VAldez

“Today I call BS on Gov. Abbott,” White said. “I call BS because you can support the Second Amendment and also support common-sense gun safety legislation. I call BS because the governor is in charge of the safety of 5 million school kids in Texas, and yet he’s too afraid to do anything about it because he’s protecting his A-plus NRA rating.”

White went on to call on Abbott to convene an “emergency special session to pass common-sense gun safety legislation.” He specifically proposed instituting universal background checks and banning large-capacity magazines. In response to reporters’ questions, he also voiced support for raising the age to buy an assault rifle from 18 to 21 and banning bump stocks, devices that make it easier to fire rounds more rapidly.

In a statement following White’s appearance in Austin, primary rival Lupe Valdez called for a “comprehensive approach to gun violence, instead of a reactive approach.” Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, echoed the need for universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines, calling them “common-sense efforts we must take now.”

I approve of this, of course – I’d go further if it were up to me, but I don’t claim to be representative. It’s hard to say how well proposals like these would go over – polling can be tricky, though universal background checks are usually popular. As an election issue, especially in a year like this, the better question to ask is whether espousing these positions will drive more supporters to the polls or more opponents. This sure seems like a good year to be optimistic about the former, but who knows? The Chron has more.

Background checks

This should make you angry.

A mistake by U.S. Air Force officials in reporting Devin Patrick Kelley’s past conviction for domestic violence allowed him to buy four guns, including the semi-automatic rifle used in the Sunday shooting at a South Texas church that left 26 dead and 20 others wounded, state and federal officials confirmed Monday.

Pentagon officials that had Kelley’s 2012 conviction in a military court for assaulting his then-wife and stepson been reported correctly to a national database used in clearing people to buy guns, the 26-year-old New Braunfels man would have been denied permission to buy the weapons.

Retired Col. Don Christensen, who was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force at the time of Kelley’s general court-martial, said that while Kelley’s punitive discharge — a bad conduct discharge — would not have prohibited him from owning a gun, his sentence to a year’s confinement in a military prison would have.

Under federal law, anyone convicted of “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” is prohibited from possessing a firearm, federal officials said.

“He fractured his baby stepson’s skull,” Christensen said of the crime of which Kelley was convicted.

Air Force officials are investigating the mistake, Pentagon officials confirmed to The Associated Press.

Texas Department of Public Safety and other state officials said earlier Monday that Kelley was denied a state handgun license, even though he would not have needed one to possess the Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic assault rifle reportedly used in the shooting.

We have a system in place that should have prevented this man from buying those guns. (The fact that anyone can buy assault rifles like the one he used is another matter, but let’s put that aside for now.) But a background check system relies on accurate data, and our system has a lot of holes in it, including this pretty glaring one. Back in the 90’s, after Georges Hennard killed 25 people at a Luby’s in Killeen, our legislature responded by passing the concealed carry law. Can we respond to the tragedy in Sutherland Springs by working to fix the problems with the national background check system? Can we at least try to do that much? I would like to think so, but we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it ends. Mother Jones and the Current have more.

Statewide Uber/Lyft bill passes out of committee

It’s gotten better, but it’s still not good enough.

Uber

A bill to establish statewide rules for “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft has been tweaked to address some concerns that its background check requirements weren’t stringent enough.

That change – which would allow cities to require that drivers be fingerprinted as part of such a check – was enough for the bill win passage out of the House Transportation Committee with a 10-2 vote on Wednesday.

The revised bill still isn’t likely to win over cities like Dallas, which would still see their recently crafted vehicle-for-hire regulations essentially wiped out. And with just 40 days left in the session, the legislation still has a long road ahead to become law.

But the bill’s author, Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, said he was optimistic.

“We’ve eliminated the vast majority of concerns,” said Paddie, who added that Uber and Lyft remain on board with the legislation.

The legislation would create statewide rules for companies like Uber and Lyft on issues ranging from vehicle standards to insurance requirements to permitting. The Department of Motor Vehicles would administer the rules, which wouldn’t apply to cabs and limos.

[…]

A sticking point in the Legislature has been driver fingerprinting – which isn’t required in Dallas, but is in other cities. And Paddie’s latest amendment to his bill could perhaps allay the worries of some lawmakers and cities who wanted that flexibility.

See here and here for the background. The Chron explains why cities are still opposed to HB2440.

Lyft

The original bill would have pre-empted local ordinances in favor of statewide regulation, eliminating the ability of a city to regulate background checks for Uber drivers.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, who authored the bill, said it will allow cities across the state to enforce local ordinances requiring fingerprint background checks for drivers, a major sticking point for local authorities.

He said that change will happen on the House floor because a reworked version introduced Wednesday had a “drafting problem” that muddled the language on local control of background checks.

“That will give the authority to the cities that if they chose to require more in that they want to require fingerprints, as Houston does, with this change they will be able to do that,” he said.

Paddie, R-Marshall, added: “We basically said ‘cities, we heard ya.”

Uber has vigorously fought against attempts to require its drivers to be subjected to fingerprint-based background checks. Paddie said Uber and Lfyt have agreed to changes giving cities the ability to write and enforce rules for background checks.

New language inserted into the bill also allows cities to require Uber and similar companies that link riders and drivers by smartphone to access a state criminal fingerprinting database, potentially key to help win support from skeptical lawmakers. Paddie, however, said he planned to replace that section of the bill with new language making clear that his bill does not pre-empt cities from requiring fingerprint-based checks.

The bill passed the transportation committee 10-2, with Democratic Reps. Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Celia Israel of Austin opposed.

Davis questioned if allowing cities to set their own ordinances for background checks would keep in place a “mish-mash” of local regulations that the bill originally sought to undo.

“There’s still potential for a mish-mash,” Paddie said, highlighting that standards for fees and insurance would still be regulated statewide.

The new language in the bill “does not prohibit a municipality from requiring by ordinance a transportation network company to access the electronic clearinghouse and subscription service under Section 411.0845, Government Code, for transportation network drivers.”

That assurance, however, doesn’t go nearly far enough and is “useless” in assuring drivers are properly screened, said Lara Cottingham, deputy assistant director in the city’s Regulatory Affairs Department.

Conducting background checks and accessing the clearinghouse are very different things. The clearinghouse is a database of fingerprints collected by various municipal and state agencies.

Honestly, this sounds a lot better, and I’m glad to hear Rep. Paddie talk about working with the cities on this, but the devil remains in the details, especially given that the bill is not yet a finished product. As we know, the experience in Houston has shown that anything less than full fingerprinting is insufficient. The “mish-mash” of not overriding stricter city ordinances on background checks is a feature, not a bug. If that stays in place, I think I’ll be all right with this. Let’s keep an eye on this as it progresses to the House floor, and do feel free to contact your State Rep and let him or her know how you feel about it. And of course – broken record alert – it would be nice to know how the Mayoral candidates feel about it, too. At least with Rep. Sylvester Turner, if it does go to a vote in the House we’ll have his opinion on the record. The rest of them will have to tell us on their own.

Uber satisfies Mayor Parker’s demands

OK then.

Uber

Tensions eased Friday in a dispute between Mayor Annise Parker and Uber, which partners with local drivers to coordinate paid rides via smartphone, after the company outlined plans to help drivers obey Houston’s for-hire vehicle rules.

Responding to Parker’s demand, Uber’s Texas-based general manager, Chris Nakutis, outlined steps the company is taking to ensure that drivers obtain a city-required permit.

“We receive many driver partner applications each week and so our compliance efforts are ongoing,” Nakutis wrote in a letter to Parker. “We will continue to identify and deactivate driver partners who attempt to operate in Houston without a TNC (transportation network company) license. This process has evolved from multiple checks per week to daily verification that driver partners without city licenses are not attempting to pick up riders in Houston.”

Parker said in a statement she was satisfied by the company’s response, subject to city verification.

“We want to close the door on unpermitted drivers,” the statement said. “I am pleased to see that Uber appears to have taken affirmative steps to end their willful non-compliance.”

[…]

“More than 500 (transportation network company) licenses were issued over the last couple of weeks – many of them to driver partners whose Uber account access was previously revoked due to not having completed the city’s licensing process,” Nakutis wrote.

The incident has led to increased enforcement of the rules, he said.

“If we find that a driver partner has accepted ride requests in Houston without a license from the city, we immediately revoke his or her ability to access the Uber platform,” Nakutis wrote. “In recent weeks, we ramped up our efforts by conducting a manual audit of driver partners on the platform and allocating additional time and resources to enforcement. We also held a series of in-person information sessions for driver partners to reiterate the city’s licensing requirements as well as the consequences for non-compliance.”

See here for the background. Some things just have to be done the hard way, I guess. The point was to get them to respect the rules, and this seems to have done it. For now, at least. We’ll see how long it lasts. Hair Balls has more.

Mayor Parker pressures Uber

Good.

Uber

After two weeks of rising tensions between the city and the ride-sharing service Uber, Mayor Annise Parker on Wednesday warned the company it risks losing the right to operate in Houston unless it submits a plan to bring its drivers into compliance with city regulations.

Parker’s message, conveyed in a letter she distributed to reporters, was her most aggressive step yet in an effort to ensure that the company, which has clashed with state and local regulators across the country, complies with city rules intended to protect its customers.

“What I want is for them to come in and I want a count of how many people are on their app as drivers and match those names and driver’s licenses with the ones who have registered, and I want everybody to come into compliance,” Parker said. “It’s that simple.”

Parker released a letter to Uber’s Texas manager, Chris Nakutis, demanding the company submit a detailed plan by Friday to bring drivers operating without city permits into compliance. Otherwise, the letter says, Uber could risk “further steps toward revocation” of its permit to operate as a so-called Transportation Network Company.

[…]

Uber officials have indicated the city’s process is cumbersome for the drivers, many of whom drive part-time. The city’s license requires an in-person vehicle inspection, and drivers must obtain their warrant history from the municipal courthouse.

Parker on Wednesday rejected many of the company’s arguments.

“Uber likes to pretend that if there are drivers operating without local permits that it’s either beyond their control, which is patently absurd, or it’s because there’s some fault on the part of the city in terms of the permitting process,” Parker said. “You can come in and in a day take care of everything.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the letter Mayor Parker sent is here. Uber has been a bad actor for awhile now. The fact that they and Lyft were operating in Houston prior to Council updating the vehicles for hire ordinance, which is something they have done in numerous other cities, was a big part of the argument against letting them in under anything but taxi-like regulations. I don’t agree with this. I continue to believe that the transportation network company idea is a good one, one for which there is clearly a lot of demand, and I don’t think it makes any sense for cities to pretend that they don’t exist. It’s unfortunate that Uber appears to be incapable of playing by the rules, and I’m not sure what it will take to change that, given that the main weapon against them is punishing the drivers that don’t actually work for them. This is where the Legislature could have a positive effect if they cared about that sort of thing, but in the absence of that I think this is the right approach to take. If this doesn’t make them take background checks more seriously, then go ahead and rescind their ability to get their drivers permitted and see what happens. Hopefully a little pain in their bottom line will make them come around.

Do we need a statewide solution for Uber and Lyft?

Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business thinks so.

Uber

Fans of apps like Uber and Lyft may find that the rules governing their operations in one city differ dramatically from those in a community down the street or across the state. That not only creates unnecessary confusion for consumers and drivers who use the apps but also chills and complicates efforts to bring this new technology — or other similar innovations or services — to more Texans across the state. And in some instances, it has forced these companies to cease operations in cities where they were already providing safe rides.

I’ve long been a proponent of forging compromise and pioneering solutions for many of our state’s most vexing problems, and congested roadways are clearly high on that list. Transportation network companies are an important part of a larger effort to reform and transform the state’s transportation system.

That’s why it’s time we brought clarity and consistency to regulations governing these new technologies.

Lyft

Texas boasts a long-running tradition of embracing public policy that encourages competition, increases consumer choice and expands economic opportunity. House Bill 2440 is consistent with this successful Texas model.

[…]

HB 2440 is a way for Texans’ locally elected state lawmakers to ensure that consistent, reasonable requirements and local concerns governing the technology are established and applied statewide.

We should embrace policy that creates clear standards for insurance and ensures that all current and future transportation network technologies fully protect drivers and riders. Background check requirements are extensive and clearly defined in the proposed legislation as well.

I noted HB2440 before, and wasn’t a fan of it then. I still think it should be within the discretion of cities to regulate transportation network companies as they see fit. That said, if this bill or another like it were to clarify some of the thorny insurance questions that have made the process of writing local ordinances that much harder, I’d support that. I get the urge to deal with this in the Legislature, but let’s take a more minimal approach first. Surely someone like Bill Hammond can appreciate that.

Or the Lege could maybe take up the issue of what constitutes minimal safety regulations, since stories like this don’t do much to enhance Uber’s reputation.

Duncan Eric Burton would not have been eligible for a city-issued permit to drive for Uber, a city official said Tuesday, because he had left prison less than three years earlier after serving 14 years on a felony drug charge.

But Burton, like an unspecified number of other drivers for the smartphone-app ride-sharing service, was working without a permit in January, when he allegedly sexually assaulted a passenger.

And Uber’s background check, which he passed, didn’t flag his federal conviction because it occurred more than seven years before he applied to drive for Uber; the company limits background checks for all crimes other than sex offenses to seven years.

The disclosure of Burton’s criminal record just a few days after he was charged with sexually assaulting a drunken passenger raised new questions about the company’s procedures and the city’s capacity to enforce regulations intended to ensure passengers’ safety.

The conviction here was for drug trafficking, not a sex crime, so one can’t really say that this driver was any more of a risk to passengers than anyone else. On the other hand, a “background check” that fails to reveal a 14-year stint in the federal clink doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. You may recall that Lyft left Houston rather than comply with the city-mandated background checks. More recently, Uber’s contention that San Antonio’s background check requirements were too onerous was one reason why they abandoned that city. I’m thinking this is a statement they’d like to have back.

The regulations adopted in December would have required drivers to pass a city-reviewed criminal background check, including fingerprinting, before getting a permit. The proposed changes would have allowed drivers to start operating once they pass the company’s background check, but still required them to pass the city background check within 14 days to get a full permit.

[Chris Nakutis, Uber’s general manager for Texas] said Uber partners with a third party to conduct background checks on people applying to become drivers and that it checks sex-offender registries and criminal databases. That should be sufficient, Nakutis contended.

Yeah, maybe not. And once again, we cannot escape the local control implications.

The idea that it’s in the public’s best interest to have the ability to regulate companies like Uber stripped from municipalities is one that’s hard to fully justify. This business model is a relatively new one, and it’s unclear as of yet what the long-term impact on the transportation infrastructure will turn out to be. It’s possible that Uber and Lyft are the future, and even if they do drive the cab companies out of business, no one will miss them. It’s also possible that there may be an unforeseen impact on the market that would be best managed by an entity that’s more active than the part-time body that is the Texas Legislature.

Furthermore, it’s hard to say that what’s right for Abilene, when it comes to maintaining a regulatory framework for new, technology-based companies, is what’s right for San Antonio. The city government out by the Alamo may be in the pocket of Big Taxi, but if one city wants to take a slow, measured approach to dealing with massively disruptive business models, while others are more keen to embrace them wholeheartedly, it’s hard to see why exactly the Legislature needs to put a stop to that.

In other words, we’re very much in the experimental phase when it comes to Uber, Lyft, etc. It seems to make sense for those experiments to be confined to lower-stakes situations (i.e., one city rather than all of them), flexible regulatory bodies (i.e., a full-time city council rather than a legislature that meets for just a few months every other year), and a multitude of approaches to regulation to see what might be most effective, rather than rushing to a plan that the companies being regulated endorse so strongly that they’re suggesting their customers co-sign, or risk Uber leaving the state of Texas for good.

The contrast between the demand for “states’ rights” and the push to subjugate cities to the will of the state government would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating. We’ll see if this approach, which as the Texas Monthly post notes includes a petition effort by Uber, gets anywhere.