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  1. Florida Politics

Insurance stands to gain in Legislature's Uber, Lyft debate

TALLAHASSEE — Beyond disrupting the taxicab and hotel industries, the mushrooming popularity of shared services like Uber and Airbnb has triggered a cry for regulation in the state Capitol.

One bill being considered by lawmakers would set minimum requirements for insurance. Another, backed by Uber, would also stop cities and counties from taxing or interfering with ridesharing companies like itself and require background checks for drivers.

Taxi and limo drivers have advocated for Uber and its competitor Lyft to be treated like cab companies.

All these proposals have one thing in common: In each case, the insurance industry wins.

Right now, ridesharing and short-term rental companies insist that their drivers or renters — "partners" in Uber-speak and certainly never "employees" — are covered by personal insurance plans.

Insurers say otherwise. According to the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, most car insurance policies don't cover for-hire vehicles. But insurance companies are eager to get in the game.

"This technology and its popularity with consumers has grown so quickly that state laws and auto insurance requirements are playing catch-up," PIFF executive director Michael Carlson said in a statement.

By 2020, Uber alone projects it will have 130,000 drivers in Florida, taking home $2 billion in wages.

If lawmakers require each driver to have insurance specially designed for ridesharing, it could mean hundreds of thousands of new contracts for insurance companies, an industry with a powerful footprint in Tallahassee.

The bills that have gained traction in the Legislature — by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs — would require each driver to have $1 million in liability insurance whenever they're carrying or are on the way to pick up a passenger, plus a lower level of insurance between rides.

Simmons' proposal would require people who use services like Airbnb — which acts as a middle-man for using short-term home rentals as a substitute for hotels — to have $1 million coverage, as well.

"The insurance companies will get more customers because we will be growing the transit category through technology and ridesharing," Gaetz said. "I think the sky's the limit."

Gaetz is one of the ridesharing industry's biggest evangelists in the Capitol. This week, he appeared at an Uber news conference and gave a passionate, almost patriotic defense of his bill in a House committee.

"Everyone who votes no," he said, "they're voting with the special interests."

However, there are special interests on the other side, too — namely, the insurance industry and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a key supporter of Simmons' bill.

Cumulatively, these industries last year spent millions of dollars on registered lobbyists, according to state data. And they spent millions more filling campaign coffers of lawmakers and political action committees.

In the last election cycle, Simmons received $35,100 in contributions from the insurance industry. Gaetz received just $2,500 in direct contributions.

Neither of those totals includes the $5.6 million the industry spent bankrolling the Republican Party of Florida.

By comparison, Uber, which has the largest lobbying presence of any sharing economy startup in Tallahassee, last year spent about $300,000 here. State lobbyist contribution data shows no records for Lyft or Airbnb.

And the taxicab and limousine companies, which see Uber and Lyft as threats that have avoided the strict state and local regulations they follow, spent $325,000 on lobbying and campaigns combined.

While the established industries and the tech companies of this emerging "sharing economy" debate issues like background checks and government approval of fare meters, the insurance industry's support has hinged on its ability to sell additional, specially crafted ridesharing policies.

Even Uber, which has developed a reputation for fighting agencies that try to enforce local regulations, is coming to the table to find common ground with insurance companies.

Proposals working through state legislatures in Tennessee, Maryland and Kansas take a similar form to the one in Florida. And here, even Uber's general manager in Florida, Matthew Gore, has touted the compromise, saying it addresses safety and insurance concerns better than ever before.

But, Gore acknowledges, it's a cause the insurance companies have spearheaded.

"You'll see legislation across the country," Gore said. "The insurance industry has come up with a solution that satisfies them."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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