A Republican state representative from Lake Geneva does not like the fact that Madison city cops set up a recent sting operation to catch drivers operating unlicensed rideshare services. In fact, Tyler August is so incensed that he warns it could result in the loss of state aid for Madison.
"[I]f the city of Madison has enough resources available to waste on undercover enforcement taxi ordinances, perhaps it is time to revisit the millions of dollars given to the city in shared revenue as the next budget process begins...," August, the speaker pro tempore, wrote in a news release on Monday.
August characterized the sting operation against Uber and Lyft as a "questionable crackdown on citizens engaged in free enterprise." And he noted that his office has "started looking into a legislative remedy to the situation."
Mayor Paul Soglin called August's "characterization of the matter an oversimplification."
"As another public official, I find it tragic that he has no concern for the enforcement of the law," Soglin said in an interview. "Being innovative," he added, does not give operators the right to break the law. "Our concern for the welfare, health and safety of citizens is clear."
As for August's threat of reducing state aid, Soglin responded, "When does it end?"
Wisconsin's Republican lawmakers have not been reluctant in recent years to offer statewide solutions to what they see as Madison's shortcomings. Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend, for instance, threatened to introduce legislation to strip the city of its jurisdiction over streets that were also state highways. He was unhappy with the way the former mayor had handled storm cleanup.
Luke Bacher, legislative aide to August, said in an interview that he could offer no specifics on what kind of legislation the representative might put forward. "I'm literally researching now," he said.
Bacher said he was aware of legislation in the works in Colorado and Florida, but did not know whether they were statewide bills or local ordinances.
"Tyler's a free-market guy," Bacher said of his boss' interest in the topic. "He wants to reduce as much as possible the barriers to registration and licensure."
Bacher said that unnecessary regulation boxes companies like Uber and Lyft out of the market, though they are "no real public safety threat to the community."
He said August would likely want to require rideshare services to carry insurance, but would eliminate all other municipal licensing requirements. "It's just giving money to Madison that it doesn't need," he said.
"That's one of the silliest things I've ever heard," Soglin said in response to Bacher's allegations.
"I don't understand why these folks can't stay on point," Soglin added. "We've got some serious issues involving the health, safety and welfare of the riding public. We have issues regarding the use of public streets and how taxicabs fit into a public system. We have issues here of equity and access."
Soglin said he and other public officials deal with these kinds of challenges every day. "If this country were left to people like Rep. August, there'd be no electricity in most of his district. Because from a free-enterprise economic standpoint it's not cost-effective. It was only through reasonable government regulation that he and his neighbors can turn on the light. The same thing is true of the landline telephone service, the cable TV service and the roads that others paid for so that people, goods and services can be transported through his district."
Supporters of Madison's regulatory scheme for taxicabs say that mandating operators to carry insurance, operate 24/7 and undergo background checks, among other requirements, ensures that vulnerable citizens and those without cars have access to reliable and safe transportation when needed.
But critics, such as August, say such rules stifle innovation and entrepreneurism.
Lyft began operating in late February in Madison and Uber launched in early March. Drivers from both companies use their own cars to pick up fares.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal, this weekend Madison police cited a driver for Lyft and another for Uber for violating the city's taxicab ordinances, fining each over $1,300.
Madison police had warned in mid-March that they were prepared to ticket drivers who operated unlicensed taxicab services.
Soglin has a question of his own for August. "Perhaps Rep. August would like to explain why these companies cannot operate under the existing ordinances."