Don't deregulate cabs

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It's not a great time to be a San Francisco taxi driver. High gas prices are taking cash directly out of drivers' pockets, and fares haven't kept pace. The only thing that seems to be solid is industry profits: According to a December 2005 city controller's office report, cab companies have been making healthy returns even in bad economic times.

The way the companies make money, of course, is by leasing cabs to drivers, who are independent contractors. The "gate" — the cash the driver has to pay for the right to use a legal, properly permitted cab — runs about $91 for a 12-hour shift. That's a lot of money to collect in fares before the driver makes a single penny, and it's one of the reasons why driving a cab is less attractive today as a long-term occupation. Each year, the United Taxicab Workers union says, up to 25 percent of the city's drivers turn over, meaning that one out of every four drivers has less than a year's experience.

It's possible the situation will take a turn for the better this spring, if the city moves forward with a plan to require cab companies and permit holders — who have the lucrative license to lease out their cabs to other drivers for profit — to help pay for health insurance for the drivers. It's also possible things will get substantially worse, if Sup. Fiona Ma manages to win approval for legislation completely abolishing city controls on gate fees and allowing cab companies to charge drivers whatever the market will bear.

What the cab industry needs is more regulation, not less. In fact, it's astonishing to see a San Francisco supervisor who is running for state assembly propose such a Bush-style deregulation plan that would enrich a few at the expense of many.

The Taxi Commission is slated to discuss the health insurance plan March 28. There are several options for how payment would be allocated; ideally, the drivers, permit holders, and cab companies would all pick up a share. But the Health Department has concluded that a working plan is possible — and the commissioners and supervisors should make sure one is put into action as soon as possible. *