Years of fighting among local governments, the Legislature and ridesharing companies such as Uber and Lyft could soon come to an end.
Lawmakers have sent to Gov. Rick Scott legislation that would prohibit local government from regulating the companies. Instead, the companies would need to meet statewide insurance and background check standards only.
The vote was unanimous in the House and nearly so in the Senate.
"This strikes the right balance of regulation and making sure that there's plenty of access for Floridians," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has sponsored the legislation in the Senate for the last four years.
Uber and Lyft have argued that being subjected to different rules in all 67 counties and more than 400 cities and towns made it hard to do business.
"We go from a patchwork of local regulations that were in conflict to each other to a statewide regime that provides harmony, stability and certainty for riders and drivers alike," said Colin Tooze, spokesman for Uber.
With the news of the law passing, Tooze refused to say what, if any, expansion Uber plans in the state.
Scott's office Wednesday said the governor is reviewing the bill.
Taxicab companies have fought against standardizing regulations statewide for ridesharing companies they compete with, saying that they hold Uber and Lyft to different standards than other vehicles for hire. Historically, local governments have been allowed to regulate taxi and limo services.
"Obviously we remain concerned about the lack of a level playing field," said Yellow Cab Co. of Tampa owner Louis Minardi, who is also president of the taxicab trade group the Florida Taxicab Association.
The bill's passage Wednesday ends years of infighting among lawmakers, particularly in the Senate, where leaders were reluctant to preempt local governments on ridesharing.
This year, the taxis' lobbying efforts fizzled.
Opposition among legislators also was hard to find. The only no vote in either chamber was Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Asked by the Times/Herald if he would talk about his opposition Wednesday, he rushed off the Senate floor and said, gruffly: "No."
If signed by Scott, the law would require ridesharing companies to have $1 million in insurance coverage whenever their drivers were engaged in a ride, as well as heightened requirements when logged into their smartphone apps but not driving a passenger.
Additionally, there would be statewide standards for background checks.
Brandes said it is also a step forward in what he views as the long-term future of transportation: a network of driverless cars run by ridesharing companies.
For Uber drivers, the move settles uncertainty in some jurisdictions, including Key West and Broward and Hillsborough counties, which at varying times in recent years banned Uber and Lyft or ticketed their drivers.
"I think it was totally ridiculous that Uber had to be held hostage by each county and each quasi-governmental entity," said Marla Garris, an Uber driver who lives in Pinellas County. "It doesn't need to be gridlock with local government. We as Floridians need to be on the same page."
In Hillsborough, Uber and Lyft fought a more than two-year battle with the Public Transportation Commission, the agency that regulates for-hire vehicles.
Under pressure from local taxicab and limousine firms, the agency ticketed Uber and Lyft drivers for operating without commercial insurance and permits. The dispute ended when the agency's governing board in December narrowly approved a temporary agreement to regulate the companies.
Kevin Jackson, PTC interim executive director, said the Senate bill isn't just taking ridesharing regulation away from the PTC but from all local government in Florida. That raises the question of who will protect and represent ridesharing passengers, he said.
"From the customer standpoint, my question is where do they go for relief when there are problems or if they have a complaint or concern?" Jackson said. "I'm not sure who will be a strong responsive department or agency to handle those types of inquiries. "
Under the bill, regulation of ridesharing would fall to the Florida Department of Financial Services.
PTC board member David Pogorilich, said ridesharing drivers should have to pass fingerprint background checks and carry the same level of commercial insurance as is required of taxicab drivers.
"The traveling public are the ones who will suffer as a result of this," he said.
The bill will also pave the way for ridesharing firms to capture more airport and port pickups.
Although local authorities are precluded from regulating ridesharing firms, airport and port authorities would be able to negotiate deals to charge fees for passenger pickups similar to those it already levies on taxicab firms.
Uber already has such agreements in Miami and West Palm Beach where it pays $2.50 for every airport pickup. A spokesman said the company will likely begin negotiations with Tampa International Airport in the next few weeks.
Taxi companies would still be regulated by local officials for now, which didn't sit well with some drivers interviewed at TIA.
They say the PTC has done little to help them and that regulations they must follow put them at a competitive disadvantage. A bill to abolish the PTC is also under consideration in Tallahassee.
"We pay more than Uber. Uber doesn't pay anything," said Wilfrid Jeanty, 39, who has driven for Yellow Cab for seven years. "I don't care who's in control as long as it's equal. We don't feel like we're treated fairly."
Miguel Sanchez, a taxicab driver with 5 years' experience, said Uber should be subject to the same rules as taxicabs.
"I'm not feeling good. Nobody here is feeling good," he said.