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Thursday, May 22, 2014 12:01 am

No free rides: taxi vs. ride-share

Every year, we get at least one “corporate fight” in Springfield. Two or more corporations or industries will duke it out over some proposed law change or another.

The cable TV industry, for instance, tried a while back to convince the General Assembly to tax satellite TV users. When I first started doing this job many moons ago, banks wanted the right to sell insurance to the public, which the insurance agents’ lobby opposed, as did a union which represented some insurance agents. The banks fought for years and eventually won.

This year has been relatively quiet until probably a few weeks ago. Psychologists want the right to dispense prescriptions to their patients, even though they’re not medical doctors. The doctors are opposed and so are the psychiatrists. Both sides recently hired a bevy of Statehouse lobbyists.

But the biggest issue to develop this spring was the fight between taxi company owners and ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft. Rather than call a cab company or wave a taxi down on the street, ride-share consumers use smart phone apps to book their rides. It’s become hugely popular in many cities around the world, but taxi company owners see the industry as an encroachment on their turf.

The ride-share companies started operating in Chicago without so much as a “How do you do” to the local government regulators and the fairly heavily regulated taxi companies retaliated. They initially tried to put the ride-sharing companies out of business with a ridiculously over the top bill.

Attempts at compromise failed. Eventually, a somewhat reasonable bill emerged, but Uber and Lyft fought it hard and both sides bulked up. Their spending rapidly escalated as independent contract lobbyists were hired left and right.

But the Statehouse spending may not have stopped there.  

Earlier this month, some wealthy taxi company owners converged on Springfield and met with the Legislative Black Caucus at their headquarters near the Statehouse. The taxi owners’ goal was to convince the legislators to support tough – some would say too tough – regulations of Uber and Lyft. Most House Black Caucus members subsequently voted for the regulatory bill, along with the vast majority of most other state Representatives.  

Rumors soon began flying, though, that the taxi owners had donated money to the Black Caucus Foundation’s annual golf outing. The Foundation is a private, not-for-profit organization that raises money for things like college scholarships.

Maze Jackson, a former Statehouse lobbyist, was named the Foundation’s executive director effective March 1. Jackson terminated his lobbying registration in late February. Before he did so, he worked with a lobbying firm that now represents the taxi industry.  

Jackson admitted last week that he had held “discussions” of a “possible” donation, but he flatly denied that anything was solidly pledged and defended the talks because, he said, they were not directly related to any legislation. The donation wasn’t discussed at the meeting with legislators, he insisted. The Foundation is prohibited from being involved in politics, and Jackson said he’s committed to raising as much money as he can from anyone he can for minority scholarships.  

Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Ken Dunkin, D-Chicago, also flatly denied that anything untoward had taken place. Other members of the Black Caucus, however, privately expressed worries that the situation could taint their Foundation in an era when even a slight appearance of impropriety can invite a federal probe.  

Jackson also claimed that a lobbyist for a ride-sharing company had approached him about making a donation. But that lobbyist said that he was conversing with Jackson at the Statehouse and Jackson casually asked him what he was working on. When the lobbyist told Jackson that he was lobbying for a ride-sharing company, Jackson said that the taxi companies had already donated to the Foundation. The lobbyist said he told Jackson that his company would probably do the same, but he said he never actually followed up with his client.

One of the ride-sharing companies pushed this story hard last week in what was apparently a last-ditch attempt to derail the regulatory package. So far, though, the legislation appears to be on track.

There is no solid evidence right now of any direct quid pro quo here. Obviously, though, this doesn’t look good on its face. At all. And it needs to stop.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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