Last week supporters of the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission rejoiced after a bill that would have allowed voters to decide on whether or not the troubled agency should be abolished went down to defeat during a meeting of local Hillsborough County area state lawmakers.
The agency's tattered image well before former County Commissioner Kevin White ending up in jail for taking bribes while serving as the agency's chairman or its former executive director, Cesar Padilla, got busted for moonlighting (and ultimately resigned).
But the bill's sponsors - Representative Jamie Grant and state Senator Jeff Brandes - came at the PTC from another angle, saying that the agency rule that mandates that limo and sedan drivers charge at least $50 per ride stifles free enterprise and has deterred alternative transportation services like Uber from getting a toehold in the market.
The $50 minimum is also the source of a lawsuit that a Hillsborough County judge ruled today can continue, rejecting a request by PTC attorneys to throw it out.
However, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Charles E. Bergmann did agree to remove Hillsborough Count Commissioner Victor Crist from the suit, as per the request of the attorneys representing the PTC.
"We'd only named him (Crist) out of an abundance of caution because we were concerned that there might be a counterargument that he needed to be included, " said Justin Pearson executive director for the Institute for Justice Florida Chapter, who filed the lawsuit along with three individual plaintiffs in late August.
Pearson contends that the $50 minimum fare rule exists "just to protect certain entrenched interests from competition, which is why he says it's not a surprise that two separate entities - Red Top Cab Company and West Coast Transportation Services, Ltd - have petitioned Judge Bergmann to be allowed to assist the PTC in their defense of that minimum fare rule.
A separate hearing will be held on that issue tomorrow.
"Somethings you just can't make this stuff up, " Pearson said of the new groups requesting to join the defense of the minimum fare. "This just confirms everything we've alleged."
While Hillsborough County is the only county in the state that has a public transportation commission, it is not the only county that has a minimum fare. Miami-Dade has a $70 minimum fare, though there are legislators in that part of the state who are trying to repeal that law.
Next up after tomorrow's hearing the two sides will go into discovery, where they will exchange information and then take depositions. Pearson says a request for summary judgement of the case probably won't take place until next summer. Hillsborough County Attorney Rob Brazel says that timeline could be correct, depending on how many witnesses need to be deposed.
"It shouldn't be against the law to give your customers a better deal," Pearson says in summarizing the thrust of his group's lawsuit against the PTC. He contends the Florida Constitution protects the rights of small business owners to operate free from unreasonable regulation and customers from being in charge.
Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher disputes that allegation. He tells CL that the commission was established for the purpose of regulating taxis and limousines and "we think that they’ve been acting within the scope of their constitutional statuatory and constitutional authority for decades now." He says that the $50 minimal fare has been part of their regulatory scheme for many years and "we don’t think that there’s any aspect of what their doing in terms of their regulatory scheme that is unconstitutional or illegal as argued by the plaintiffs."