SALT LAKE CITY — When is a duck not a duck? When it's a platypus.
Lou Bertuca riffed the analogy while trying to explain to a Utah legislative committee last year how his company, Turo, a web-based peer-to-peer car rental platform, differs from traditional car rental agencies like Enterprise or Hertz. Bertuca also drew the line in a more direct statement.
"We are not a car rental company," Bertuca, senior manager of government relations for Turo, said. "(We're) a personal vehicle sharing platform."
The 2018 meeting was the first round of a battle that's made Utah legislators the referee-arbiters of a fight about fairness and "level playing fields."
The crux of the issue is whether or not the extensive regulatory requirements and tax liabilities (and exemptions) that apply to legacy businesses should also apply to the new business models like Turo's that, instead of directly providing any goods or services, simply mediate the connection of two private parties for a transaction.
Now Libertas Institute has a new poll out that, according to the libertarian think tank's policy director, shows Utah voters want government rulemakers to take it easy when regulating transactions that involve individuals sharing or renting private property.
The business model at question is like those driving other share economy companies like apartment/housesharing platforms Airbnb and VRBO or ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft. These companies, which also disrupted legacy markets, continue to navigate regulatory issues.
The debate happening in Utah about peer-to-peer car renting is having a moment of ubiquity with similar conversations afoot in almost three dozen state legislatures across the country.
In the 2019 Utah legislative session, two bills that took markedly different approaches to imposing some new regulatory requirements on peer-to-peer car rental companies both failed to advance. One proposal was supported by Turo and other share economy proponents, while the other had the strong backing of Enterprise and other representatives of legacy companies.
After the double fail, legislators punted the discussion to this summer's interim meetings.
Libertas policy director Michael Melendez said his group has long believed a sentiment gap exists between lawmakers and voters when it comes to regulatory approaches to innovation companies. To that end, Libertas launched a survey effort to see if the data supported its perception of a divide.
"We just have always felt there is a disconnect between the public's feelings on innovation and disruptive new technology versus how the government's laws reflect that," Melendez said. "We wanted to see what the numbers would say."
And while some detractors characterize the Libertas survey as a one-sided "push-poll," the data gathered shows marked support, across political and other demographic boundaries, for a light-touch approach from lawmakers and other regulators.
Some 67 percent of the voters polled responded "yes" to the question: "Do you think that car owners should be legally allowed to share their vehicle at the airport without obtaining a permit or paying a fine, or not?"
And 87 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat agree with the statement: "Utah should protect a free market for all, not specific businesses or industries."
Only 5 percent of those surveyed thought "more government involvement in the ride-sharing market" would have sped things up, versus 56 percent who felt that would have only slowed things down.
The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling June 11-13 with a sample of 745 Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percent, according to Libertas.
Melendez said the poll results reflect surprisingly broad-based support for the idea that government "shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in the market and protecting certain industries."
"I don’t think I would have necessarily expected that … across the board, in all ideologies, people are supportive of this kind of stuff," Melendez said. "The issues unified the conservative and liberal respondents.
"Liberals don’t want certain big businesses to benefit while everyone else isn't, and from the conservative side, it might be more an issue of general fairness and small government."
Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsored last session's SB190, a bill aiming to regulate peer-to-peer rental platforms that had the backing of Enterprise Rent-A-Car and other legacy providers but failed to advance out of the Senate before lawmakers adjourned for the year. Bramble was dismissive of the Libertas findings, but noted that regulators are always tracking behind business innovators.
He believes there is a high likelihood that lawmakers could find a regulatory middle ground that companies like Turo and Enterprise could both find comfort with.
"I’m not a statistician nor am I a pollster, but I do recognize push-polling when I see it," Bramble said. "After looking at it, I don’t believe any of those questions were unbiased.
"Anyone that has been around would have to recognize that business regulation and tax policy is regularly behind the curve when it comes to changes in technology, changes in business models.
"We will find that middle ground that is reasonable and fair and all sides believe is a reasonable approach. I think we’ll get there."
Ed Fowler — controller with Enterprise Holdings, parent company of car rental companies Enterprise, Alamo and National — also discounted the format of the Libertas poll.
"The poll is clearly designed to elicit a particular set of answers, so we can't take it seriously," Fowler said in a statement.
Fowler did go on to say that his company is pro competition, but wants to see a regulation framework that, from his perspective, ensures every business pays its "fair share" of taxes.
"Enterprise fully supports open competition and parity," Fowler said. "We also believe that anyone renting cars has an obligation to their local community to pay their fair share of taxes and fees, just as we do and as Airbnb and any other peer-to-peer home-renting platforms are required to do.
"It doesn’t make sense for only one portion of the car rental and car sharing business, particularly those claiming to have hundreds of thousands of vehicles available for rent, to expect special treatment on the taxes and fees we all pay," he said.
Melendez, in response to criticisms of the poll's format, said he thinks the negative responses are simply a reflection of disagreement with the findings.
"Those opposed are going to call a poll that doesn't support their position biased no matter what," Melendez said. "These questions were part of a more extensive survey performed by a reputable third-party."
Turo spokesman Steve Webb said he felt the Libertas poll reflects that Utahns simply feel it's their right to control how they use their own private property, be it renting a room in their home or subletting a vehicle.
"Not surprising that people want the ability to share their personal property and not surprising that they feel they should have the right to monetize their assets, in this case a depreciating asset," Webb said. "And we don’t find it surprising at all that people don’t want government to overstep or limit their choices as consumers."
Webb also noted that Turo is not at all opposed to regulation but did call out Enterprise for using its influence to try to "regulate us out of business" and said the company's argument about how airport fees should be applied is a perfect example of why companies like Turo are different than companies like Enterprise.
"They want Turo hosts to pay the same fees that they pay, in spite of the fact that we’re not staging vehicles nor do we have parking or other infrastructure at the airport," Webb said. "Enterprise is paying fees proportionate to the infrastructure they have.
"If we’re going to pay, it should be something closer to what the transportation network companies (like Uber and Lyft) are paying."
A Salt Lake City International Airport spokeswoman told the Deseret News companies like Uber and Lyft are currently paying $2.50 for each pick-up or drop-off on airport property.
Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, made similar arguments in defense of the bill she ran in the last session, HB354, that was an effort Turo supported. While the proposal won favor on the House side, it failed to advance out of a Senate committee hearing.
Coleman said that when Turo hosts began sharing vehicles in Utah, the initial reaction by Salt Lake City in how it dealt with hand-offs at the airport were "entirely inappropriate."
"Salt Lake City charged some of these people as criminals," Coleman said. "These are people who are using their own property to benefit their own family’s economics … but hitting up against regulations that protect existing industry from competition."
Coleman said while she and Bramble approached solving the peer-to-peer dilemma from different standpoints, she shares the Utah County senator's belief that a compromise proposal is not out of reach.
"The House had legislation that favored a more free market and less regulatory process while the Senate had a bill that favored the existing car rental industry," Coleman said. "They collided and we didn’t see resolution. I hope to resolve this in favor of allowing people to make use of their family assets … whether it's selling veggies from the garden, renting out space in my garage or renting my car when I'm not using it."8 comments on this story
Coleman also noted a bill passed by the Colorado Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in late May found favor with both legacy companies and peer-to-peer efforts and could provide a template for creating a successful Utah proposal.
Webb from Turo said the Colorado legislation works because it takes a regulatory approach that recognizes that legacy companies and peer-to-peer companies are distinctly different. And an Enterprise spokesman said his company is "cautiously supportive" of the effort but feels there are still some issues to address.