California’s Uber Hunt

uberThe way things are going, Uber may soon face a court challenge in California over its failure to use an umlaut. The popular ridesharing startup has already been hit by an administrative law judge’s recommendation that the company pay $7.3 million in damages and suspend operation in the state. At issue: Uber’s alleged failure to provide the California Public Utilities Commission with internal data about how many customers with service animals or wheelchairs Uber drivers serve, along with time, location and fare data.

This decision came just a month after the California Labor Commission redefined the app-based ride-hailing service’s business model. In that case, San Francisco Uber driver Barbara Ann Berwick demanded that the company reimburse $4,000 worth of expenses. The commission ruled that Berwick, a transsexual who previously operated a phone sex business — Linda’s Lip Service — was a full-time-equivalent employee during four months of sporadic driving for Uber. (Berwick, now a financial consultant, expressed disappointment with the money an Uber driver makes.) The decision directly threatens Uber’s business model, in which drivers sign up as independent contractors with a minimum of the fuss and paperwork associated with modern hiring, choose their own hours, and are clearly remunerated on a piecework basis.

Last week, a U.S. district judge in San Francisco allowed a group of cab companies to proceed with a false-advertising lawsuit against Uber. The same judge also greenlit a suit against Uber claiming that it spammed potential drivers with recruitment text messages. That suit was dismissed when electronic records showed that one of the plaintiffs had begun pursuing the company herself.

Notably, complaints about Uber typically aren’t coming from customers, and even among the firm’s drivers, crusades like Berwick’s are rare. In fact, what’s striking about the various campaigns against ride-sharing is their reliance on paperwork and credentialing instead of outcomes. The CPUC, for example, doesn’t assert that Uber is harming actual handicapped people, only that the company has failed to produce paperwork that proves the absence of harm. Similarly, the cab companies’ speech-related lawsuit — which focuses on safety claims made in Uber ads — does not claim that traditional taxis are safer than Uber rides. The plaintiffs assert instead that cab drivers are subjected to more paperwork than Uber drivers.

The anti-Uber campaign’s reluctance to assess outcomes is understandable, given the public’s strong revealed preference for the company. Interest groups can complain, but drivers and customers continue to vote for Uber with their time and money. In a free country or a sane state, a clear market decision in favor of a business would be the end of the discussion. But Uber is increasingly under pressure to furnish evidence that its model works in theory as well as in practice.

The company recently commissioned Los Angeles-based BOTEC Analysis to measure service in low-income neighborhoods — a market in which anecdotal evidence already suggests that Uber’s influence has been positive. BOTEC compared UberX with taxi services in Van Nuys as well as Central and East Los Angeles. The median wait time for an UberX ride in L.A. neighborhoods was five minutes and 52 seconds; for a taxi ride, it was 14 minutes and 33 seconds. The maximum recorded wait time for UberX was 20 minutes; for a cab, 57 minutes. Despite Uber’s widely maligned practice of “surge pricing” — a concession to the law of supply and demand that is for some reason considered outrageous — UberX also soundly beat traditional cabs on price, with a median cost per ride of $6.28, versus $15 for taxis. Surge pricing didn’t even produce a higher maximum price. UberX’s max cost per ride was $11.68, against $22 for cabs.

BOTEC is led by UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, a thoroughly un-libertarian, good-government figure. Nevertheless, Uber opponents have dinged the study as free-market propaganda from the Uber central command. SHOULD YOU TRUST UBER’S BIG NEW UBER VS. CABS STUDY? New York asks. (Answer: a definite maybe.) Meantime, L.A. Weekly wonders, “Is Uber really being straight-up about its commitment to serve folks other than young, white professionals and party people?” But defenders of the taxi status quo face an even bigger hurdle: Uber’s very existence is an advertisement for the free market. It’s an obviously less-regulated initiative that has produced measurable, positive outcomes across a wide spectrum. No wonder people hate it so much.

California’s Drought is a Communications and Policy Issue

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

In the face of California’s crippling drought, public agencies will have to employ wide-ranging strategies and tactics to educate, motivate, enforce, and reinforce messages about drastic water cutbacks.

Their success or failure hinges on how they communicate to diverse audiences about managing water, a precious natural resource. In their dilemma, there are also communications lessons.

On Tuesday, California’s State Water Resources Board said residents used 13.5 percent less water against an April 2013 benchmark. This is a significant improvement over previous months, but it also shows a major gap in achieving the mandatory average 25 percent reduction in urban water use ordered by California Governor Jerry Brown. 

The drought has generated thousands of media stories and an unending stream of tweets and posts and sparked intense debate on what needs to be done. Water agencies, city managers, and other local elected officials will have to make major decisions, large and small, about how to urge residents to use much less, and conserve much more, water.

In this highly charged atmosphere, carefully developed communication strategies will be essential to get the public informed and accepting of the solutions required. Organizations will have to engage from the top down at the state level to coordinate messages and from the bottom up at the local level to make relevant, persuasive arguments.

State-level authorities must consistently communicate the need for cooperation through a coordinated, systematic and statewide approach.  Local water interests must develop their own communication programs that appeal to the residents and water users in the jurisdictions. Authorities overseeing water reduction must speak with culturally appropriate voices to residents from diverse backgrounds. Finally, local water interests will succeed from a grassroots approach that aims to be informative rather than punitive.

Eventually the rain and snow will fall. California will experience relief from this prolonged and painful drought. In the meantime, the drought is all but certain to result in future water policy, lifestyle, and societal changes. To what extent California’s lawmakers rewrite future rules hinges on how the state’s water users change behavior and habits now.

As California has done on other issues such as energy, healthcare, and education, the state has the opportunity to model a progressive problem-solving strategy. Impactful communications, thoughtfully implemented, will play a critical role in the success of that strategy. Lessons abound for PR professionals everywhere.

Originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

irector at KP Public Affairs, a PR and lobbying firm based in California

Public Outrage Over Uneven Water Cutback Mandates

Shower head water droughtA cascade of new water regulations has brought the drought home to millions of residents across California, cutting into their indoor and outdoor use and, often, prompting an outcry. But the impact of the regulations, handed down at different levels of government, has become significantly uneven, sowing the seeds of further controversy as the cutbacks continue with no end in sight.

Transforming landscaping

Following on Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order mandating swift and sustained reductions in water usage, California regulators brought yet another type of consumption to heel. “The state Building Standards Commission voted to change development rules to reduce the demand for water,” the Associated Press observed. “Developers can meet the rules by planting shrubs and bushes instead of grass or installing slow-trickling valves instead of traditional sprinklers.”

Regulators expected the decision to bring significant savings — about 20 percent less across all California lawns. “Outdoor irrigation,” noted the AP, “accounts for roughly half of residential water use.” By the middle of June, residences, workplaces, schools and hospitals will all be subjected to the new strictures.

Riparian regulations

The curbs on thirsty lawns followed fast on sharp new demands imposed on historic farms by the State Water Resources Control Board. In an unprecedented move, a group of farmers recently offered to reduce their consumption by 25 percent relative to 2013 levels. Now, regulators have accepted the plan.

“The action applies only to so-called riparian rights holders, landowners whose property has direct access to a river or stream,”reported the Los Angeles Times. “By volunteering the cuts, Delta farmers avoid the risk of being hit with even larger cutbacks mandated by state water regulators.” According to the Times, the move brought one especially precious form of relief, taking away “the threat of lengthy and divisive litigation in a time of crisis.”

But not all farmers have accepted the new status quo. Some, reported the Contra Costa Times, hired attorneys “to assert that the state is defying statutes that honor their seniority. The water board’s order exceeds the scope of the state’s authority, the lawyers contend.” Farmers complained that they were pushed to offer a deal in order to avoid Draconian, potentially devastating penalties. And the state’s order that rights claimants show proof of property ownership has touched off an angry scramble for documentation.

“To defend their place in line, senior rights holders have rushed their ancient documents to analysts in the Division of Water Rights in Sacramento,” according to the Contra Costa Times. “Who, where and what rights will be curtailed in coming weeks remains to be determined, water officials say. Cutoffs will be based on flows in the watershed — and how long rights have been held.”

Local outrage

Meanwhile, in areas where cutbacks have already been adopted, some water agencies have moved ahead with even sharper penalties for current levels of use. San Jose Water, a private company supplying much of Silicon Valley with drinking water, followed the lead of nearby Santa Cruz and mandated steep new reductions in residential water consumption. As the San Jose Mercury News reported, “the company announced it would give all single-family residences — defined as any home that has its own water meter — monthly water allocations requiring a 30 percent reduction from 2013 levels. Apartments and most businesses won’t receive them.”

One detail in particular provoked a public outcry: “The 30 percent cut isn’t based on each home’s individual use. Instead, it’s calculated on the month-by-month average of all residential users in San Jose Water’s service area.” Company officials endured an hours-long hearing that drew some 350 dismayed locals, but remained — like officials across the state — largely unmoved. “It’s not like the spigot is going to go dry,” said Palle Jensen, senior vice president for regulatory affairs, according to the Mercury News. “You can still use water. But you will have to decide how.”

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

Californians Pay To Have Their Lawns Spray Painted Green

Front yard waterGov. Jerry Brown is cracking down on how much water Californian’s use in their daily lives, and that means parched lawns are turning brown as the state heads into its fourth year of drought.

In steps some savvy entrepreneurs who have a solution to water restrictions: spray paint your lawn green, don’t waste water on it. Lawn painting companies, like Xtreme Green Grass, are seeing business boom.

“I probably have about seven appointments scheduled in just the next week or so.” David Bartlett, the company’s owner, told KXTV-Sacramento.

Bartlett’s company sprays a non-toxic green dye across the brown areas of your yard, making look as if it’s been freshly watered. The service takes about an hour and costs 25 cents per square foot.

That may seem like a lot, but Bartlett says it’s way cheaper than making your lawn “drought-friendly” by bringing in new plant material. Doing that can cost homeowners several thousand dollars.

Most of California is going through an “exceptional” drought period, according to monitors, and some 37 million residents are being impacted by less-than-normal rainfall and snowpack. The Golden State saw record low snowpack this year.

In response, Gov. Brown mandated that statewide water use shrink by 25 percent, pushing for fines up to $10,000 for those who use too much water. Republicans have blamed federal and state policymakers for flushing lots of water out to sea every year because of the delta smelt — a small, endangered fish.

“For the governor to come out and say, ‘Look, we all have to now take shorter showers and kill our front lawns and stop washing our cars,’ that is not the answer,” said Travis Allen, Republican State Assembly member. “Forty percent of our water is going into the Pacific Ocean. The answer is, let’s stop sending that water into the Pacific, and let’s send it into our cities, into our homes.”

“Sacramento and Washington have chosen to put the well-being of fish above the well-being of people by refusing to capture millions of acre-feet of water during wet years for use during dry years,” U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican who represents the Bakersfield area. “These policies imposed on us now, and during wet seasons of the past, are leaving our families, businesses, communities and state high and dry.”

Originally published by the Daily Caller News Foundation

California Imposes First Mandatory Water Restrictions to Deal With Drought

As reported by the New York Times:

PHILLIPS, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday ordered mandatory water use reductions for the first time in California’s history, saying the state’s four-year drought had reached near-crisis proportions after a winter of record-low snowfalls.

Mr. Brown, in an executive order, directed the State Water Resources Control Board to impose a 25 percent reduction on the state’s 400 local water supply agencies, which serve 90 percent of California residents, over the coming year. The agencies will be responsible for coming up with restrictions to cut back on water use and for monitoring compliance. State officials said the order would impose varying degrees of cutbacks on water use across the board — affecting homeowners, farms and other businesses, as well as the maintenance of cemeteries and golf courses.

While the specifics of how this will be accomplished are being left to the water agencies, it is certain that Californians across the state will have to …

Click here to read the full article

Regulated Uber? Or Deregulated Taxis?

Considerable disagreement continues over whether or how to regulate ridesharing companies, but both sides concur on the need for regulatory parity uberbetween taxis and ridesharing services.

Policy experts on both sides of the debate met Tuesday for a discussion hosted by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and while they generally agreed that the same regulatory framework should apply to both taxis and ridesharing services, this was the extent of their accord. (RELATED: Five Ideas to Put Taxis, Ridesharing Companies on an Equal Footing)

Brink Lindsey, Cato’s vice president of research and the moderator of the discussion, framed the issue by saying that, “ridesharing is the hot new industry of the last few years,” but has come under fire from traditional taxi operators, who claim it has attained success mainly by “evading existing taxi regulations.”

Lindsey also pointed out that since 2012, when Uber and Lyft began operation, the market valuation of both companies has increased substantially, while the markets for taxi medallions in New York City and Chicago have all but collapsed, suggesting that ridesharing enjoys certain advantages over traditional taxis.

According to Marc Scribner, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, modern taxi regulations date back to the 1920s, when streetcar operators “first began lobbying for anti-competitive regulations.” (RELATED: Anti-Uber Efforts Mostly Fizzling)

By the 1940s, those restrictions had been adapted for the taxi industry in most cities, primarily in the form of taxi medallions, minimum fares and geographical service requirements, all of which, he claimed, serve to limit competition, and thus service quality, in the industry.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, acknowledged that ridesharing is “a great innovation,” but said it is also important “to decide what legitimate regulation is,” especially when it comes to passenger safety.

He claimed, for instance, that, “it doesn’t make sense not to have a uniform policy for insurance,” because ridesharing passengers should be entitled to the same reasonable expectation of compensation in the event of an accident that taxi passengers already enjoy, even if the requirement does impose some costs on business.

Similarly, Baker also asserted that ridesharing companies should be required to perform background checks on drivers, just as taxi companies must, saying, “It seems reasonable to ensure that drivers don’t have a violent criminal history.”

Besides, he added, “I would hate the idea of my 87-year-old mother driving an Uber.”

In addition, Baker proposed that, “minimum wage and overtime rules should apply, and ridesharing drivers should be able to bargain collectively,” claiming those steps would help to ensure commensurate pay rates for both taxi and ridesharing drivers.

However, Matthew Feeney, a Cato policy analyst, countered that ridesharing companies have been impressively responsive to concerns such as those Baker raised, which Feeney takes as evidence that the market is better able to handle such challenges than is the government.

“Before we ask if government should regulate,” he said, “we should ask if companies will regulate themselves.” (RELATED: Adam Smith Opposes Regulation of Taxi Industry)

“Insurance is a legitimate concern,” Feeney granted, but he said ridesharing companies have already taken steps to address that shortcoming. In the case of Lyft, for example, “a $1 million insurance policy takes effect as soon as a driver accepts a passenger.”

There is a “gray area” in that coverage when a driver has their ridesharing app turned on and is not carrying any passengers, but Feeney said that in most major cities, companies have already sprung up to “fill the gaps” by offering per-mile insurance coverage.

Moreover, Feeney maintained that ridesharing services are inherently safer than traditional taxis for both drivers and passengers. (RELATED: Illinois Governor Vetoes Anti-Ridesharing Bill, Taxis Protest)

Driving a taxi, he explained, is essentially the same as “picking up hitchhikers for a living,” with the predictable result that it is among the more dangerous professions an individual can engage in. In fact, in all but two years between 2006 and 2013, “more taxi drivers were killed on the job than police officers or firefighters.”

The occupation is so risky, he said, not only because taxi drivers are known to carry large amounts of cash (“the mother’s milk of crime”), but also because “their job consists of giving rides to anonymous strangers.”

With ridesharing services, in contrast, “drivers and passengers are not anonymous, and they rate each other,” which serves to deter crime by making it easier to identify and apprehend perpetrators.

“Taxis are not destined to go extinct,” Feeney concluded, “but to maintain relevance they must tap into what makes ridesharing so popular.”

Follow Peter Fricke on Twitter

Originally published by the Daily Caller News Foundation

Foie Gras Battle Continues

Just two days before the deadline, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office filed notice the state would challenge U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson’s January ruling that federal law preempts the state’s ban on serving foie gras.

The phrase in French means “fatted liver” and comes from a goose or duck that is force fed to produce the delicacy. The case is named after the main plaintiff, based in Canada, the Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies du Quebec vs. Harris.

Harris’ office declined to comment on the filing. But advocates of maintaining the ban were quick to weigh in, beginning with Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society’s vice president of farm animal protection. According to Reuters, heclaimed, “California has the right to prevent the commerce in such a cruel and inhumane product.”

That’s anything but certain. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the plaintiffs who challenged the foie gras ban expressed certainty that constitutional law was on their side. They said:

“We’re very confident that the district court’s judgment will be upheld on appeal. The decision was based on the simple fact that, in the field of meat and poultry, federal law is supreme. California does not have the right to ban wholesome, USDA-approved poultry products, whether it’s foie gras or fried chicken. We look forward to having our victory affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The Ninth Circuit, however, took up the issue before. In 2013, it turned back an injunction by out-of-state farmers to put the California ban on hold until the matter could go through the courts.

That raises the possibility that the ban will be upheld again, triggering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Facing federal law

As CalWatchdog.com previously reported, Wilson ruled the ban ran afoul of federal poultry regulations — specifically, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, or PPIA. He wrote:

“This issue boils down to one question: whether a sales ban on products containing a constituent that was produced in a particular manner is an ‘ingredient requirement’ under the PPIA. California cannot regulate foie gras products’ ingredients by creatively phrasing its law in terms of the manner in which those ingredients were produced.”

The ban arose in 2004, after then-State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, introduced Senate Bill 1520. The bill prohibited foie gras from being produced or sold in California, thereby ruling out imports of the fattened-liver delicacy. Wilson’s decision approved the importation and sale of foie gras, but did nothing to alter California’s prohibition on production.

The perils of prohibition

However the legal case against the ban may fare in higher court, observers have taken note of the practical effect of foie gras prohibition. Much like America’s experiment with alcohol Prohibition, 1920-33, banning foie gras appeared to increase Californians’ appetite for what was banned.

As Josh Barro detailed at the New York Times, demand for foie gras rose precipitously both immediately before and after the ban:

“‘We saw an up in volume two years ago when the ban went into effect,’ said Ariane Daguin, chief executive of the specialty food supplier D’Artagnan, which sells to both restaurants and consumers. ‘People wanted to see what the brouhaha was about. Now what is happening is all the chefs who are our friends and have been buying other things from us want to put foie gras back on the menu.’”

What’s more, as Robin Abcarian reported in the Los Angeles Times, fattened liver “never truly disappeared from menus.” Chef Ken Frank, a big foie gras proponent, told Abcarian he “skirted the ban by giving customers foie gras, randomly delivered, he said, with a note explaining the gift was a protest.”

Although he insisted he “went to great lengths not to violate the letter of the law,” Frank himself has been dragged into court by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which brought suit against him and his restaurant in March 2013.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

VIDEO: CA Law Driving Egg Prices Higher?

“Taxifornia” author James Lacy explains to Fox Business’s Stuart Varney how a California law could drive up the prices of eggs. Also discussed is the state’s potential mileage fee for drivers.

Regulation of Uber, Lyft Thrown Into Question by California DMV

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

California’s burgeoning efforts to regulate ride-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft have reached a fork in the road after the Department of Motor Vehicles issued an advisory that, in mandating commercial registration, threatens to upend the companies’ business model.

Conceived as an alternative to taxicabs, firms like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar allow people to use their personal vehicles to transport customers who have hailed a ride using a smartphone app. They tout their flexibility and potential for non-professional drivers to make some extra cash.

But the DMV said earlier this month that any time a car is used to transport people in exchange for compensation, that car must have commercial plates – an order that contradicts previous state regulations, according to the industry. …

 

CA Regulations Hatch Legal Food Fights

Have you noticed egg prices going up as much as 40 cents a dozen? Look to California voters.

In 2008, they passed Proposition 2, which mandated more comfortable hatching quarters for chickens. Because of the cost to farmers of expanding chicken coops, a grace period was allowed of six years, to Jan. 1, 2015.

As NBC reported, the extra time allowed farmers time to “invest in operations to make sure that every hen would have at least 116 square inches of space, or about a square foot. One thousand laying hens, for example, now require a facility measuring more than 800 square feet.” That’s about double the space egg-layers enjoyed previously.

Now that the clock has run out on preparation time, egg prices are poised to rise even higher. According to the Associated Press, the cost of breakfast will rise for consumers across the country, not just California:

“The new standard, backed by animal rights advocates, has been criticized by chicken farmers in Iowa, Ohio and other states who sell eggs in California and will have to abide by the same requirements. California is the nation’s largest consumer of eggs and imports about one-third of its supply.”

Nationwide, the market could eventually adjust. UC Davis economist Daniel Sumner told the AP “prices initially could rise sharply this year but he expected them to eventually settle 10 to 40 percent higher in California and return to their normal prices elsewhere in the country.”

That would leave Golden Staters paying a premium that other Americans, with less comfortable chickens, would avoid.

Foie gras

The egg price jump also ties into the ongoing foie gras controversy. As CalWatchdog.com previously reported, for now, foie gras is back on Californian menus.

In a brief ruling that skirted deep questions of constitutional law, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson held this week that federal poultry regulations “preempt” what was a statewide ban on the delicacy, a rich dish made from the liver of force-fed geese or ducks.

But as Daniel Fisher noted at Forbes, supporters of the ban swung quickly into action. “The Humane Society immediately urged California to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which has been friendly toward the state’s extraterritorial regulatory efforts in the past.”

Notably, the activist organization referenced another hot area concerning chickens: eggs.

According to Fisher, the “foie gras ban ran afoul of federal law controlling the ingredients in poultry products, the Humane Society said, while the egg ban involves the process of raising chickens.”

There, the important distinction concerns out-of-state production and in-state consumption. The Ninth Circuit’s ostensible treatment of the foie gras case will turn on its interpretation of the Interstate Commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Faced with a previous challenge to the ban, the Ninth Circuit did not object to the way that Sacramento’s ban on foie gras made it impossible under state law for out-of-state producers to import the food into California. Nevertheless, Wilson held that federal poultry law prevailed over California’s policy.

Different argument

So the Humane Society and other ban defenders want the Ninth Circuit to consider a different argument: California should be able to ban food production that requires what they consider cruelty to animals — even for out-of-state production.

In a case last fall, Judge Kimberly Mueller, of the Sacramento Division of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, held that out-of-state producers of eggs running afoul of California’s new rules lacked “standing” to sue — meaning  the capacity of a party to bring suit in court.

Now the Humane Society and its allies expect to show in-state standing before the Ninth Circuit.

All told, California’s food fight isn’t just set to expand. It’s set to escalate, perhaps even to the national level.

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com