Local elected officials in Texas decry proposals that would strip away some of their authority
Construction workers in Austin and Dallas are currently allowed to take 10-minute breaks every four hours – a time many use to drink water and relax in the shade.
These breaks don’t just exist because of employers’ good intentions; they are actually required under local ordinances.
But a bill moving through the Texas Legislature would undo all city- and county-based worker protections that aren’t currently part of state law. The proposal has prompted pushback from labor organizers and local elected officials.
“If the state refuses to take care of its labor – of us – then at least allow our cities to do it,” Ivonne Gonzalez, a member of the Austin-based organization Workers Defense Project, told reporters Wednesday.
If passed by Texas lawmakers, House Bill 2127 would make other broad changes, including preventing local municipalities from implementing or enforcing ordinances, rules or policies in areas the state already regulates such as agriculture, finance and labor.
Bill author Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said the measure is coming in response to what he called “an explosion” of local ordinances adding regulations.
“What I am starting to see is a different category of ordinances that have emerged, where some of the same advocates that come to the Legislature with their agendas – that are not able to get it through here at the state Capitol – have now gone to some of our cities, more progressive cities, and have those adopted,” Burrows told a House panel Wednesday.
He added his measure would also create a “consistent” set of regulations, while still allowing local governments to respond to emergencies.
Scott Norman, the executive director of the Texas Association of Builders, said his organization supports the bill because the patchwork of local ordinances, including ones related to workers’ protections, makes things confusing.
“It’s impossible from an administrative concept to comply with varying employment regulations,” Norman said.
Empowering lawsuits against the local government
Under the proposal, anyone who has faced injury or is threatened by an ordinance can sue a local government.
It also allows the lawsuit to be filed either in the county where the ordinance was passed or in an adjacent county. Burrows explained that aspect accounts for the possibility that county courts might delay picking up lawsuits.
Individuals could sue the city, county and or the city or county official in their official capacity.
But Alyssa Garza, a City Council member from San Marcos, called the bill “undemocratic” and said she worries about the precedent it could set.
“What kind of message are we sending if we allow the state to interfere with local democracy, whether it would be taking away a policy that was approved by the voters or stripping the policy-making powers of their local governments?” she told reporters.
Concerns about payday lenders
Besides the legal concerns, many who testified during Wednesday’s hearing talked about how the proposal would erase ordinances that regulate payday loans.
However, Burrows said those ordinances would be kept.
According to the Consumers Financial Protection Bureau, payday loans are “usually repaid in a single payment on the borrower’s next payday, or when income is received from another source such as a pension or Social Security.”
Lenders have been criticized for what many claim are predatory tactics that target low-income people with their unfair terms for lending.
Ann Baddour, the state director of Texas Appleseed, said local ordinances currently in place ensure fair standards for payday loans and that, even with fair lending terms, many Texans are still in debt.
“People don't have money to buy from their local hardware store because they can't even afford to make rent because they're stuck in a payday or an auto title loan,” Baddour said.
According to The Perryman Group, payday and car title loans have taken $1.6 billion out of the pocket of Texans, mostly low-income residents.
She told lawmakers that many small-business owners have lost their jobs after not being able to meet their payday loan obligations.
“So, it’s in the economic — the very local economic — interest to have these ordinances,” Baddour said. “We'd be extremely concerned if they were overturned.”
The House State Affairs Committee will vote on the legislation at a later time. The chair of the committee asked the opponents of the measure to follow up with the committee with a list of ordinances that could be affected if the legislation were to pass.