Texas House approves sweeping limits on local regulations in GOP’s latest jab at blue cities
By Joshua Fechter, Erin Douglas and Alex Nguyen, The Texas Tribune
“Texas House approves sweeping limits on local regulations in GOP’s latest jab at blue cities” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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In a major escalation of Republicans’ efforts to weaken the state’s bluer cities and counties, lawmakers in the Texas Legislature are advancing a pair of bills that would seize control of local regulations that could range from worker protections to local water restrictions during droughts.
A bill backed by Gov. Greg Abbott and business lobbying groups, House Bill 2127, would bar cities and counties from passing regulations — and overturn existing ones — that go further than state law in a broad swath of areas including labor, agriculture, natural resources and finance. It received initial approval Tuesday in the Texas House by a 92-55 vote but must come back before the chamber for a final vote.
The bill’s backers argue it’s needed to combat what they call a growing patchwork of local regulations that make it difficult for business owners to operate and harm the state’s economy. Texas’ economic growth and jobs are overwhelmingly concentrated in the state’s urban areas.
“We want those small-business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families, not trying to navigate a byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time” they cross city limits, said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, the Lubbock Republican carrying the bill in the House.
HB 2127 is one of several bills that Republicans filed this session to prevent cities and counties from enacting new progressive policies. For example, the bill would block local ordinances designed to provide more benefits to workers such as mandatory paid sick leave — though the state’s courts have already halted such city rules — and eliminate mandated water breaks for construction workers in Austin and Dallas.
The bill’s opponents — which include Democrats, local leaders, advocates for low-income workers and environmental groups — see a major power grab in the making that would prevent local officials from responding to their communities’ needs.
Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat, blasted the bill as “unconstitutional” as House lawmakers debated it Tuesday.
“Texas is unique and our communities are diverse,” he said. “A cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work for our vast and complex state.”
Labor leaders blasted Tuesday’s vote — with Rick Levy, head of the Texas AFL-CIO, calling the bill a “radical attack on our democracy and on the voices of local voters across our state” and a “strong message to workers … that they don’t deserve even the most basic protections.”
“Local leaders, who are best suited to pass policies that reflect the needs and values of their communities, have provided this protection,” Levy said. “Today, the Legislature got one step closer to stripping that all away.”
Critics argue the legislation would have far-reaching consequences and prevent cities and counties from combating predatory lending, responding to excessive noise complaints, enforcing nondiscrimination ordinances, creating invasive-species programs and more.
Gutting city regulations entirely instead of considering them individually short-circuits the democratic process, opponents said.
“The idea that we should, instead of having those debates, cut them off at the root and upend our democratic process to win fights that we aren’t even having is an affront to democracy,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.
Because the bill is so broad, no one really knows the full extent of what it would do. Months after Burrows unveiled the first draft of the legislation, opponents still fear they’ve only scratched the surface of its potential impacts. Democrats on Tuesday sought explicit carve outs for local laws including nondiscrimination ordinances and protections against workplace sexual harassment but those measures failed. They warn of a flood of lawsuits against local governments should the bill — or its counterpart, Senate Bill 814, carried by Conroe Republican Brandon Creighton — become law.
“We’re just going to have to go to the courts to figure this out,” said Luis Figueroa, chief of legislative affairs at the left-leaning nonprofit Every Texan. “There’s going to be lawsuits filed all over the place.”
“Inflection point” for small government
The Burrows and Creighton bills are seen as the broadest attack yet in Texas Republican leaders’ efforts to erode the authority of large urban areas often controlled by Democrats — a battle they’ve been waging for the better part of the past decade.
In recent years, the Legislature has made it virtually impossible for cities and counties to touch their police budgets and reined in how much their overall spending can grow each year. Texas cities can no longer ban fracking within city limits or require landlords to accept low-income tenants with federal housing vouchers.
Republican lawmakers have pitched several other proposals targeting specific local regulations for state control this year, including bills that would sap local governments of the ability to enact mask mandates and upend how Austin plans to fund its ambitious but embattled public transit expansion. They have also championed bills to bar cities and counties from enacting tenant protections against eviction, regulating short-term rentals and hiring lobbyists to represent them at the Capitol. One bill would kneecap an ongoing legal battle by cities like Houston, Austin and Dallas to recoup money they say they’re owed by streaming giants like Disney, Hulu and Netflix.
Earlier this month, the Texas Senate unanimously approved a bill that would block local governments from banning products that increase greenhouse gas emissions. The legislation was inspired by a proposal in Dallas that sought to restrict purchases of gas-powered lawn equipment but that has not been approved.
Sen. Kelly Hancock, the North Richland Hills Republican carrying the bill, acknowledged in a March committee hearing that no other cities have tried to restrict gas lawn equipment. But he cited talk of the federal government regulating gas stoves due to health concerns as another reason he authored the proposal. The bill is preemptive, he said.
“We just need to nip this in the bud before it starts,” Hancock said.
The notion of broadly preempting local laws at the state level runs counter to how Texas has operated for much of its history, said Steven Pedigo, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ Urban Lab. The state has largely let cities and counties govern themselves on local matters since the Legislature meets only once every two years. Conservatives also traditionally believe that government is better when its role is smaller.
“We’re at a real inflection point,” Pedigo said. “Does the state of Texas really believe in conservative government or does it not? That’s the big question.”
Democrats hammered that point Tuesday. Burrows’ bill “is the very definition of big government,” Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat, said on the House floor.
Supporters of Burrows’ and Creighton’s bills have countered by saying local regulations can harm the state’s economy. Business groups are backing the proposals because they would prevent the state’s more left-leaning cities from enacting rules the groups believe would be harmful to businesses.
“We just don’t know what cities might propose next,” Annie Spilman, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, testified at a recent Senate committee hearing on the proposal. “That uncertainty of a business owner trying to figure out if they can comply … is just a lot.”
But if local business regulations have hampered the state’s economy, its booming economic and job growth over the past decade don’t reflect it, opponents of these measures say. The overwhelming majority of local regulations that business groups and Republican lawmakers usually object to come from Texas’ four largest metropolitan areas — Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio-New Braunfels and Austin — which account for nearly 70% of the state’s economic output.
“This idea that we need uniformity of regulation is overblown,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “It’s kind of a fiction that Texas is suffering economically because of the so-called patchwork quilt.”
The Creighton and Burrows bills would also prevent cities from enacting ordinances that conflict with the state’s natural resources and agriculture codes, which environmental groups warn could have implications for everything from water conservation to controlled burns.
Cyrus Reed, conservation director at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, characterized it as “fairly radical” legislation because “it takes 100 years of how we’ve done things for home-rule cities and reverses it.”
In addition, the legislation has faced fierce pushback from labor groups that say it would roll back many hard-fought local measures like Austin’s and Dallas’ heat break ordinances, which both mandate a 10-minute break every four hours of work for construction workers. Ahead of the bill’s Tuesday hearing on the House floor, workers and labor groups rallied outside of the chamber and handed out water bottles to protest the bill.
Labor unions and advocates have repeatedly said that these local rules are necessary to protect workers from the Texas heat, especially as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s standards have been shown to fall short and extreme heat becomes more common amid the worsening effects of climate change.
Many Democrats raised those issues during the House debate and tried to carve out a range of local labor protections by amending the bill, but their efforts failed.
“Texas doesn’t typically wait on Washington to solve our problems for us,” Turner said.
Burrows argued that, historically, it hasn’t been the local government’s role to address problems like heat stress on workers.
“This is where OSHA has been. If the state needs to take a look at it, happy to do that — but we do not need to have a patchwork of these ordinances across the state at every municipal level,” he said.
Labor advocates worry that the legislation could overturn policies barring various forms of employment discrimination that are not yet protected under state or federal law, such as hairstyle discrimination bans. They also fear that local “fair chance” hiring policies — intended to give formerly incarcerated people a better shot at landing a job and reduce the chance they will reoffend — could also be cut and leave a protection gap because existing federal law only covers federal agencies and contractors.
Standalone and narrower legislation that targets local labor regulations, like Senate Bill 130 by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, has already cleared the upper chamber.
Burrows’ and Creighton’s bills have also raised concerns among nonprofits and faith groups that have pushed for payday and auto-title lending ordinances, which exist in 49 Texas cities.
The latest version of Burrows’ and Creighton’s bills has an exemption for ordinances that were adopted before 2023 and would be valid under the current law, which has been presented as a way to protect such rules. But some say that provision is not a significant concession.
Ann Baddour, director of the Fair Financial Services Project at the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, said the bills would prevent more local governments from regulating payday and auto-title lending. They would also ban cities from updating their ordinances in order to effectively keep up with new predatory loan products.
“The state has not been taking action, and so cities have been the ones left to address it,” Baddour said. “And so to continue that status quo while taking away substantial powers from cities to remain relevant and effective, I am deeply concerned about it.”
Companies have long argued that people and businesses with little credit that urgently need cash want access to these short-term, high-interest loans. But the problem is that these loans are “virtually unregulated” by the state, Rep. Jon Rosenthal of Houston said Tuesday on the House floor.
“These folks prey on the poor,” he said.
In addition, low-income housing advocates fear the Creighton and Burrows bills would take a weed-wacker to fair-housing protections — though Burrows said Tuesday those would remain untouched — and other local rules and initiatives designed to help low-income tenants as rents and evictions have skyrocketed in the state after the pandemic.
It’s unclear whether the bills would, for example, get rid of programs that provide legal assistance to tenants facing eviction or nix efforts to punish landlords who repeatedly fail to keep their properties up to code, Ben Martin, research director for Texas Housers, a housing advocacy group for low-income Texans, told a Senate committee earlier this month.
“It would be great if the state extended important housing protections to everyone,” he said. “But for now, local governments are the ones who have shown drive and urgency in tackling these problems. If you preempt them now, low-income people will suffer until such a time as the Legislature chooses to take these issues up.”
Ultimately, opponents of the bills worry that if the bills pass, cities and counties will be powerless to tackle problems plaguing their communities — and that a disinterested Legislature won’t fill the vacuum.
“They don’t want a statewide solution; they just don’t want a solution,” said Figueroa of Every Texan. “They just want to protect their special corporate interests.”
Disclosure: Every Texan, Texas Appleseed, Texas Municipal League and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/18/texas-house-local-control/.
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