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Louisiana Senate President Sank Ride-Sharing Bill. His Close Pal Sells Insurance to Cabs.

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This is an example of how broken politics in the US have become. Rebekah Allen reports in ProPublica:

Gordy Dove has begged Uber and Lyft to make their ride-sharing services available in Terrebonne Parish, where he serves as parish president.

The sprawling coastal parish of 112,000 people is not easily walkable, and Dove worries about how students at colleges in the area will get home from the bars after they’ve had a few drinks.

But the big ride-sharing companies aren’t coming to places like Houma, the parish’s biggest city, or many other parts of Louisiana anytime soon. That’s because Louisiana does not have legislation in place allowing them to operate. The state is one of only five that lacks such a law, instead requiring the companies to go through the costly and time-intensive process of getting approval in each locality.

A bill to change that has garnered widespread and bipartisan support. It was backed by the governor, a Democrat, and sponsored by the House speaker, a Republican. It had 56 co-sponsors from both parties — nearly 40 percent of the state’s lawmakers — in both chambers and from all corners of the state. It was favored by the potent Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and other economic development groups.

But the bill is not going anywhere, thanks to one man, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego.

The powerful politician twice used parliamentary maneuvers this year to sideline the bill.

More than a dozen legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staff pointed to Alario’s close personal, professional and political alliance with former Sen. Francis Heitmeier, who makes a living selling insurance to cab companies and lobbied against the ride-sharing bill.

The cab industry was one of the few opponents of the bill.

In interviews with The Advocate, the legislators, lobbyists and Capitol staff said they didn’t want to speak about Alario on the record for fear of antagonizing the most powerful man in the Legislature, who has more say over what becomes law in Louisiana — and what doesn’t — than any other person, except perhaps the governor.

Those willing to speak publicly hinted at Alario’s influence on the bill but stopped short of using his name.

“There’s one really important person who’s just not on board,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, a frustrated proponent of the bill. Asked if that person was Alario, Magee said he didn’t want to answer the question.

This year, The Advocate is partnering with ProPublica to investigate conflicts of interest in the Louisiana Legislature. The news organizations have shown how legislators routinely sponsor, speak on behalf of and vote for bills that benefit their own businesses or help their relatives and clients. Another story illustrated how financial disclosure reporting is so poorly policed in Louisiana that lawmakers can easily hide how they earn their income — even when the source is public money.

Alario, in an interview, said that he had not taken a position on the ride-sharing bill and that his actions were not motivated by a desire to kill it. He said he and Heitmeier may have “talked about it in passing,” but their friendship had no impact on his actions.

“Francis is a dear friend of mine, but that would not sway me. I have friends on all sides, a whole slew of lobbyists that I’m friends with,” Alario said. “Sometimes I’m on the same side as them and sometimes I’m not.”

He said he believes the accusations stem from people who are unhappy that the bill died.

Heitmeier said in an email that his opposition to the bill “has always been a case of public safety.”

Proponents of the failed ride-sharing bill say it makes no sense that Louisiana, which depends on tourism but lacks reliable public transportation, would reject a bill designed to allow ride-sharing. Lyft called the political landscape in Louisiana “tough” but said it would keep trying to bring service to the state. Uber has been careful not to blame players by name, but it is getting close.

“The personal allegiances of a few powerful people shouldn’t obstruct the ability of Louisianians to earn flexible income and get a reliable ride,” Uber spokeswoman Evangeline George said.

Pearson Cross, a political science professor and an associate dean at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the situation illustrates the way business is conducted in Louisiana and every other state legislature.

“It seems clear that personalities, interests and webs of influence matter a great deal to what does and what does not get passed by the state legislature,” he said, adding that legislators are within their legal and ethical rights, per state law.

Sent to a Committee “So It Could Be Killed”

The bill, which would have legalized ride-sharing and outlined uniform regulations for drivers, was sponsored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia. Such high-profile backing was meant to ensure its passage.

“We thought we could neutralize the Senate with having the speaker’s name on it, thinking they wouldn’t quite put up the opposition,” said Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, who sponsored the bill in 2017, when it also was killed.

But after the bill easily passed the House 97 to 1 in April, Alario used a parliamentary maneuver that doomed the bill from the start.

The bill’s sponsors and other supporters wanted it to be heard in the Senate transportation committee, where it would have passed easily, according to the committee chairman Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. However, in April, Alario assigned it to the committee known as Judiciary A, which typically handles bills concerning criminal justice and civil law and procedure.

Barras found the move confusing.

“I assigned it to House Transportation for that very reason. It’s a transportation company asking to do business in the state; that would have been a logical assignment to me,” he said in an interview.

But the Judiciary A committee also happens to have several members who oppose the bill.

Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, a member of Judiciary A who supported the bill, said he thought the assignment was strategic. “I think it was sent to Judiciary A so it could be killed,” he said.

Asked about the assignment, Alario said it was “the proper subject matter” for Judiciary A without elaborating. He added that he was unsurprised that Barras, the bill’s sponsor, wanted it to be assigned to a committee where it had an easier path to victory.

In 2017, when Alario assigned a similar ride-sharing bill to the same committee, Havard, the House author, withdrew it before debate, sensing it was dead.

In the committee this year, the bill faced tough questioning from Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Metairie, an ardent defender of the taxi industry who has been open about his distaste for companies like Uber and Lyft.

“For those of you who are cab drivers, I have led the charge to stop what they are trying to do to you with the Uber and Lyft people,” he said in 2017 while stumping for a seat on the Jefferson Parish Council, a race he ultimately lost.

During the committee hearing, Martiny sometimes angrily questioned Uber and Lyft representatives about what he said was the lax way in which their companies are regulated in other states, and how they were proposing to be regulated in Louisiana. He also questioned why the bill called for the state Agriculture Department to oversee ride-sharing, rather than the Public Service Commission.

Martiny had an ally in Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, who works with a law firm that represents 50 taxicab drivers and companies that sued Uber in March, saying the ride-sharing firm’s aim was ”to unfairly compete, crowd the market and eliminate competition.”

Bishop is “of counsel” to attorney Ira Middleberg’s law firm, meaning he is not directly employed by the firm but has a close relationship with its lawyers. The status is sometimes used for high-profile attorneys, such as politicians, who serve as rainmakers. Bishop’s connection to Middleberg was first reported this summer by WVUE-TV.

In the end, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 August 2018 at 7:42 am

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