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A new twist to an old game

Monday, May 19, 2014

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

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 Lift. 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 1st. 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.

Thoughts?

- Posted by Rich Miller        


10 Comments
  1. - A guy... - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 9:34 am:

    ====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.=====

    That’s pretty rapid movement from Point A to Point B. Between the lines, it looks like there’s some fire to go along with that smoke if legislators voice this kind of concern in one sentence. Could just be paranoia, but it looks a lot more like some members were very uncomfortable with the way this went down. Willing to bet there’s a lot more to this one. And this kind of thing is something the media loves to cover.


  2. - dave - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 9:42 am:

    Maze Jackson is going to be a problem for the black caucus. For a variety of reasons, and this smoke/fire situation is just one of them.

    Some of the public posts Maze has been posting on facebook related to Michael Sam have been more than offensive, and are definitely not the kind of comments you want from the face of the black caucus.


  3. - Walker - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 9:46 am:

    A lot of quid pro quo requests are hinted at rather than stated clearly.

    A lot of lobbyists/companies donate to favorite charities or related organizations on the off-chance that it might have some favorable influence.

    If it didn’t work, people would stop doing it. It occurs at all levels of government, and in the corporate world. I wouldn’t begin to know how to try to stop it with regulation.

    The solution lies with hiring the most ethical public servants.


  4. - DuPage - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 9:52 am:

    The ride-share reminds me of Mega-Bus. Mega-Bus had a fatal accident downstate. A low front tire blew out and they crashed into a bridge support pillar.
    They said the bus had been checked the week before during routine maintenance. USDOT regulations require tires to be checked at least once a day. Remote signaling pressure indicators would also have alerted the driver, but this bus did not have them.
    Who will be responsible for the safety of the ride-share vehicles and drivers? What if the driver runs short of cash and the insurance lapses?


  5. - Toure's Latte - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 10:12 am:

    Do lobbyists ever gin up these fights for the business?

    Using an app to arrange a ride with an unlicensed stranger? Pass. Cab companies should deploy a ride service app for their own use.


  6. - LGHB - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 10:15 am:

    All of this from industry opposition to legislators protecting the industry giants reminds me of the movie Tucker.


  7. - VanillaMan - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 10:51 am:

    This is Illinois.
    You keep your 21st Century ideas and innovation away from here.


  8. - VanillaMan - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 10:52 am:

    This is Illinois.
    Cash only. Small unmarked bills, please.


  9. - Gator - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 12:24 pm:

    This one incident probably won’t become a big deal. However, it might be indicative of a pattern of behavior on behalf of the Foundation, which could cause problems.

    How many companies with pending legislation have been approached for donations? Has the Foundation steered certain lobbyists to these companies?


  10. - VanillaMan - Monday, May 19, 14 @ 12:54 pm:

    Uh - check with Governor Quinn’s old friend working for Uber as their lobbyist, for more details, I bet.


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