May 9, 2016
Even Mel Brooks, one of the funniest people to ever live, couldn’t have imagined the joke that Uber and Lyft made of the election process here in Austin. Proposition 1, an election the two corporations asked for — or, depending on your point of view, forced on Austinites this past Saturday — was the election version of Brooks’ classic play and movie “The Producers”.
Well, sort of.
“The Producers” is a story about two Broadway conmen who only want to make money and try to do it by deliberately producing a flop.
The flop is called “Springtime for Hitler”, and to everyone’s surprise, it’s a hit. They failed by succeeding.
Uber and Lyft simply failed.
They took a petition signed by 65,000 people — that’s a pretty big base to start a campaign with — and used the City of Austin Charter to call an election at pretty considerable cost to taxpayers.
They then spent over $8 million — an amazing amount of money — to lose an election, thanks in large part to misleading and heavy-handed tactics that annoyed and riled up voters.
If Uber and Lyft, like Bialystock and Bloom, had conspired to take a pretty popular transportation service, tons of initial support plus all of that money and tried to lose an election by becoming seen as misleading bullies, well, that might have been funny. You know, the way farces are funny.
But in the case of the Producers of Prop. 1, they just created a wasteful farce.
From the beginning, this was an example of some very poor local community decision-making on a topic — transportation and how new mobility options could help us — that deserved a smart, honest and substantive conversation.
This rapidly devolved into overly simplistic, all-or-nothing, winner-take-all politics. Both sides demonized each other, which is typical of bad policy discussions.
There were legitimate reasons to vote for and against Prop. 1. We should and could have had that discussion.
Unfortunately, some folks are already taking the worst lessons from this election. The votes were barely counted when some state officials started attacking a local election and proclaiming the need to preempt local democracy.
It would be a huge mistake to take this episode as anything other than what it was. This obviously doesn’t reflect how Austin feels about tech innovators. And it’s not an example of an overzealous regulation.
Frequently at the Capitol, we’re reminded that elections matter. Well, they do. And so do voters. They’ve spoken here and deserve respect.
One state elected official even suggested the legislature needs to overturn the “tyranny” of a local election. Another said it’s an example of trampling liberty.
Really? A process where a couple of corporations got to use the city’s version of its constitution to call an election, opened a basically unlimited campaign tab to get their message out, and where voters heard both sides and made up their minds? That’s democracy—you can’t call it tyranny or trampling liberty just because you’d have it the other way (if you lived here to begin with).
Come to think of it, tyranny and trampling liberty is overturning that kind of process.
If Uber and Lyft leave Austin, a town that has real mobility needs will miss having them here. But they don’t have to leave Austin.
If both sides can cut out a few months of scar tissue, focus on finding common ground and really try to craft a good public policy, we can get to a good place—maybe even a place that other Texas cities and the Legislature would like to get to. Of course, elected officials at all levels of government will need to also participate in good faith.
If they do, we can produce ourselves an actual hit. Wouldn’t it be great to see everyone do something right, and do it on purpose?