Lyft, a ride-booking company and competitor of Uber, could return to New Mexico if a bill that passed the Legislature during its last hours Thursday morning becomes law, says a sponsor of the measure.
Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, said in a phone interview after the bill passed the House 63-4 that taxi cab companies hold a monopoly under existing regulations.
“That’s why we don’t have taxis in rural communities,” she said.
But the bill, which creates a regulatory framework that Lyft and Uber say they could support, might prompt changes in existing regulations by creating competition, she said. She hopes that would prompt more transportation services to operate in rural New Mexico.
Gov. Susana Martinez has said she supports the bill.
The measure, controversial among some drivers who say it doesn’t protect them, would authorize the state to regulate Lyft, Uber and similar businesses. It requires transportation companies that book riders through smart-phone apps to buy a $10,000 annual permit, maintain insurance and run background checks on drivers.
Uber — the only company of its kind doing business in the state — currently operates without legal authority. The Public Regulation Commission tried last year to adopt a set of rules to regulate such services after Uber and Lyft began operating in 2014, but taxi companies asked the state Supreme Court to halt the process. The appeal is still pending.
The rules the commission proposed last year prompted Lyft to end operations in New Mexico. Uber also objected to the proposal. The companies said the state’s Motor Carrier Act, under which the rules would have regulated them, does not apply because Uber and Lyft use apps to connect their drivers with riders.
The new legislation would create a separate law for such companies.
“We don’t have any specifics to share at the moment,” a Lyft spokeswoman said in an email, “but the framework does create a regulatory environment that would allow Lyft to operate and thrive.”
Uber General Manager Steve Thompson said his company is also pleased, saying it “remains optimistic that riders and drivers will continue to have access to ridesharing in New Mexico.”
The three taxi companies that asked the Supreme Court to intervene did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday. But a lawyer for one of the companies has said businesses like Uber and Lyft should have to follow the same rules as other motor carriers like taxi cabs.
In the bill’s final hearing Thursday morning, Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Santa Fe, said the measure does not level the playing field for motor carriers who must comply with existing rules. “Basically, Uber didn’t want to be subject to those regulations,” he said on the House floor, “and so now they have their own.”
McQueen says the bill does not protect the drivers. An earlier version classified them as “independent contractors,” which some drivers say allows the companies to change contracts on a whim and pay them below minimum wage.
“It’s equivalent to me as a sweatshop, in terms of wages,” said Joe Chavez, who has driven for Uber since July and lobbied lawmakers for more protections.
“If he has an issue being an independent contractor,” Youngblood said, pausing, “no one forces him to be an independent contractor.”
Some people also worried that the bill would require drivers to buy expensive insurance policies, but Youngblood said that wouldn’t be the case. The bill states that if a driver’s insurance has lapsed or is inadequate, the company will provide primary coverage.
“The thing that is important to understand is that the drivers support the concept of what Uber does,” said Chavez, who represented a district on Albuquerque’s west side in the state House of Representatives from 1997-2000. “But it’s unfortunate that the Legislature didn’t take into consideration what’s going on with the drivers.”