Senate approves bill regulating Uber and Lyft

The bill now includes a state-run background check.

–AP

The Massachusetts Senate has passed a bill that would regulate services like Uber and Lyft.

Uber and Lyft celebrated the bill in its original form as the kind of light-touch regulation that codifies their existing business practices.

However, Senators on Wednesday agreed to add a state background check of drivers that was not originally included in the bill.

The new background check would require the companies to provide driver information to the state. The state would then run a secondary background check, essentially double-checking the investigation already done by the companies.

Uber and Lyft supported a bill proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker last year that would have required a similar form of a background check. But the companies are sharply opposed to a House bill passed earlier this year that includes a state-run check.

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The House bill’s background check differs from the Senate’s and Baker’s, because the House would require drivers to individually undergo the check rather than allowing the companies to submit their information to the state. Uber has said that the House’s proposed process would affect its business model because the added requirement might turn off drivers from joining the service.

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson reacted positively to the bill’s passage. She did not specifically mention the added background check.

“We applaud the Senate for passing legislation that expands consumer choice, encourages innovation and ensures passenger safety in the Commonwealth,” she said in a statement.

Uber’s Boston general manager, Chris Taylor, did not indicate the companies’ level of support, but thanked the Senate for taking up the issue.

“We thank the Senate for their commitment to passing statewide ridesharing regulations,” he said. “We commend the Senate working group [that drafted the bill] for their deliberative and open process that led to a significant step forward for innovation, transportation and economic growth for communities across the Commonwealth.”

Senators did not adopt an amendment that would have required drivers for the digital-age transportation companies to fingerprint drivers — a measure that has driven Uber and Lyft out of other markets. The companies argue the checks are both too burdensome for drivers and unnecessary because the companies already conduct third-party background checks.

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Following contentious debate on the topic, the proposed fingerprinting measure fell in a 14-24 vote. The measure was proposed by state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who last year cosponsored a bill that would have required fingerprinting. Her proposal was supported by taxi companies that have called on tighter regulations for Uber and Lyft as their business has fallen off. Dorcena Forry also proposed the state-run check the Senate ultimately wound up adopting.

The form of the proposed background checks are not the only big differences between the Senate and House bills. In addition to their criticism of the House’s background check process, Uber and Lyft have also criticized the House version because it would ban the companies from picking up riders at Logan Airport and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for five years.

Meanwhile, the Senate bill includes a 10-cent-per-ride fee for all rides provided by the companies over the next five years. Those fees would ultimately go to cities and towns to pay for transportation-related expenses — including by paying taxi companies that have seen their community-issued licenses dwindle with the rise of the new competition. The House bill does not include the tax.

The differences between the bills mean the fight is not over. The two versions will need to be ironed out between the chambers to create a final bill in the next month, before the legislative session runs up at the end of July.

Both Uber and Lyft said they look forward to finalizing a law through the conference committee. So did Scott Solombrino, a limousine executive who has pushed for tighter regulations as a leader for a coalition representing the livery and cab industries.

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“We are clearly disappointed with outcome of today’s Senate session and the passage of their ride for hire legislation. This bill is lacking in public safety provisions from start to finish,” he said. “We are not done fighting. We will work to ensure that all the provisions we care about are retained in the conference committee.”

The Senate also adopted several minor amendments among the more than 50 it took up. Among the most significant is one that would require drivers to pay commercial vehicle rates at tolls using state-issued transponders while providing hired rides through the companies’ apps. Senators also removed a measure in the bill that would have required Uber to add a tipping function to its app.

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