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Texas Usually Fights Austin At The Capitol. Lately, The Fight Is In The Courtroom.

Gabriel C. Pérez
The state Capitol dome is reflected in the Texas Supreme Court building.

Austin has endured several legal jabs from the state in the past couple months.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stepped into a dispute earlier this month over the makeup of the city’s Planning Commission. A week ago, Austin announced it would no longer enforce its ban on single-use plastic bags after the Texas Supreme Court overturned a similar law in Laredo. In April, Paxton joined a lawsuit brought by business groups against Austin’s new paid sick leave rules.

A spokesperson confirmed that the City of Austin's legal team has been busy lately and has "more cases involving the state than we historically have had."

The state versus city narrative is not new in Texas, but typically that tale unfurls during the legislative session.

“I think [what's new is the fight is] going into the courtroom instead of just the halls of the Legislature,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. He called Paxton’s involvement in the city’s Planning Commission “inappropriate.”

Texas Municipal League Executive Director Bennett Sandlin said he's also noticed the trend of city-state fights entering the courtroom, but he sees it simply as spillover from the Legislature.

“When you see success coming after cities in the statehouses, when that starts to catch hold, I think the next logical step is: If you can’t beat them in the statehouse, go to court under the same theory,” Sandlin said. “These lawsuits are really an extension of what we’ve seen the last two sessions.”

In an op-ed in the Austin-American Statesman on Friday, Paxton decried the “lawlessness” of cities in Texas, citing policies struck down in the past couple years by court rulings or legislative action. For example, Austin’s background check requirements for ride-hailing companies were preempted by a new state law last year.

Paxton’s office did not respond directly when asked by email if he was hoping to hurry up the legislative preemption process by taking more of these cases against the city to court. In addition to clarifying current cases against the city, a spokesperson wrote: “The Attorney General is focused on upholding the rule of law no matter what level of government is in question.”

State Rep. Paul Workman, who represents parts of West Austin, has promised to overturn at least one other city ordinance next session.

“I do think that there is concern at the state Legislature about municipalities abusing powers and removing rights and liberties of their citizens," he said. "I think that there’s concern that left unchecked we will see more and more of the liberties of our citizens removed.”

Research suggests, at the very least, that state lawmakers are overriding local laws on a national level more often.

The National League of Cities published an updated report this year on state preemption laws. In it, researchers looked at seven common laws passed by state lawmakers in the past couple years to override city regulations, such as paid sick leave and ride-hailing regulations. The organization found that only two states – Connecticut and Vermont – had not passed laws in 2017 overriding local rules across the most common topics.

Alex Jones, the organization's manager of the Local Democracy Initiative, attributes a rise in preemption laws to two things: Republicans are overwhelmingly in power in statehouses, while cities tend to have more liberal leaders and are flexing their power to pass new policies.

“Cities are doing more than they have traditionally in order to solve problems in their communities,” Jones said.

Sandlin said that has led to a movement to reclaim the power of state-governing bodies.

“I call it the Goldilocks form of government: The federal government’s big and bad, cities are small and bad, and somehow state government gets it just right," he said. "And that can’t possibly be the case, of course, but that’s the trend.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler told KUT recently he believes it is economically and culturally short-sighted for the state to hamper cities' expression of their values.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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