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Texas GOP’s broadest attempt yet to erode blue cities’ power gets one step closer to becoming law

a city skyline across a river and a park
Evan L'Roy
The Texas Tribune
The Austin skyline on July 13, 2022.

Republican state leaders’ broadest effort to prevent Democratic-run cities and counties from enacting progressive policies — which could drastically limit local government’s ability to make rules on areas like labor rights, drought restrictions and even noise complaints — is one step closer to becoming law.

By a 18-13 vote mostly along party lines, the Texas Senate gave final approval Tuesday to House Bill 2127. The bill will now head back to the House to hash out changes made in the Senate.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican and former mayor, was the lone Republican to vote against the bill.

The sweeping legislation — authored by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican — would bar cities and counties from issuing local ordinances that go further than what’s already allowed under broad sections of state law, including labor, agriculture, natural resources and finance.

The bill’s supporters, including Gov. Greg Abbott and business lobbying groups, have long sought such a law to push back against what they say has become a growing patchwork of local regulations that weighs heavy on business owners and harms the state’s economy.

The bill is “a lifeline for small businesses who need consistency and certainty to invest and expand and grow,” said state Sen. Brandon Creighton, the Conroe Republican who carried the proposal in the Senate.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a major lobbying group that supports HB 2127 and has pushed for similar legislation in previous sessions, cheered the Tuesday vote.

“For more than five years, as cities stepped outside their jurisdiction, the pandemic pumped the brakes on our economy, and uncertainty plagued the business environment, our small business owners have done their best to keep their doors open, take care of their employees, and serve their customers,” Annie Spilman, NFIB Texas director, said in a statement. “Today, the Senate has joined the House in standing up for Texas job creators. [The bill] will give small business owners relief from the current patchwork of regulations across our state and make it easier for them to do what they do best.”

The legislation would overturn any existing regulation that conflicts with it. Opponents say the bill would wipe out mandated water breaks for construction workers in some cities and water-use restrictions during droughts. They warn that local governments would no longer be able to combat predatory lending or invasive species, regulate excessive noise or enforce nondiscrimination ordinances.

“The bill is undemocratic,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “It is probably the most undemocratic thing the Legislature has done, and that list is getting very long. Local voters have created city charters, and I can't imagine that they will be pleased to have their decisions usurped by lawmakers.”

But those changes might be just the start. The bill is so broadly written that no one knows exactly how much it would ultimately limit local governments’ power to make rules. Opponents say the bill’s reach would likely be determined in the courts as businesses contest ordinances they dislike, one at a time. Meanwhile, they fear, local leaders would be powerless to respond to problems in their backyard — and left at the mercy of an uncaring Republican-dominated Legislature. Democrats predicted that lawmakers would be back in two years to try to rein in unintended consequences of the law.

“This bill obliterates small government,” state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, an Austin Democrat, said Tuesday. “It obliterates local control. It obliterates the local balancing of interests that creates the distinct local flavor from Lubbock to Houston, Laredo to Texarkana from Muleshoe to Dallas. … How is that good government?”

State Sen. John Whitmire, a longtime Houston Democrat who’s running for Houston mayor, said the bill would be the “final nail in the coffin” of local government and put an end to the concept of “local control.”

“I think you're disrupting a really golden goose,” Whitmire told Creighton during floor debate Monday. “I hope for the sake of the state that I'm wrong.”

Eckhardt, a former Travis County judge, was skeptical of Creighton’s argument that local ordinances are harming the state’s economy, given that most of the state’s economic output is concentrated in the state’s urban areas.

“We [would be] the ninth largest economy in the world if we were our own nation, but you're saying that business is having trouble here?” Eckhardt asked Creighton during floor debate on the bill Monday.

Creighton conceded that Texas’ economic activity is concentrated in major metros, but noted that companies like Tesla and Samsung have located just outside of major city limits.

To Creighton, the bill is about reining in cities that have exceeded their authority under state law.

“There is without a doubt, certainty and signaling with this legislation and other bills that are a reminder that jurisdiction matters, that the state constitution matters, and that our businesses matter,” Creighton said. “Because our businesses are panicking.”

Democratic senators brought amendments explicitly stating that the bill wouldn’t nix local nondiscrimination ordinances — which its authors have said the bill wouldn’t touch — and that businesses that sue local governments would have to prove state law substantively regulates the field of law that local rules seek to address. They also tried to allow cities to mandate water breaks for construction workers and enact “fair chance” hiring policies — aimed at giving formerly incarcerated people a better chance at landing a job and reducing the chance they will reoffend. But all of those amendments failed.

Cities could no longer enact their own protections for tenants facing evictions owing to an amendment Creighton quietly added to the bill on Monday. Creighton and state Rep. Shelby Slawson, a Stephenville Republican, had bills to do just that but those have stalled.

The legislation “is going to lead to more evictions, more suffering for low-income people and ultimately more economic impact for all Texans because a certain share of these evicted people are going to end up experiencing homelessness, and become an even greater cost for Texas taxpayers,” said Ben Martin, research director for Texas Housers, a housing advocacy group for low-income Texans.

The bill represents a considerable escalation — if not the climax — of Texas Republican leaders’ crusade over much of the past decade to erode the power of the state’s large urban areas, which are often controlled by Democrats. As early as 2017, Abbott had mused about an “across-the-board” ban on local regulations.

As a result of moves by the Legislature in recent years, cities and counties can’t regulate fracking within their limits or require landlords to rent to low-income tenants with federal housing vouchers. Lawmakers also made sure cities and counties check in with voters first before making cuts to their police spending or raising property taxes above a certain amount each year.

Republicans and business groups have particularly chafed at local ordinances that aim to give greater benefits to workers than those allowed under state law, like mandatory paid sick leave — which has been approved by three major cities but has stalled out in the courts — and mandated water breaks for construction workers in Austin and Dallas.

Much of the Monday debate revolved around what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does and doesn’t do, especially as the bill’s critics have largely rallied around safeguarding mandated water breaks for construction workers laboring under the Texas heat. In particular, Creighton argued that OSHA’s rules and guidelines are enough to do the job.

Labor groups, however, have repeatedly said that the federal agency is ill-equipped at protecting workers from heat stress. Its current general guidelines on workplace safety have been shown to fall short on this issue — and it could take years before the agency has in place specific national heat standards. And while OSHA has tried to ramp up its effort to tackle the challenge in the meantime, labor advocates have cautioned that it is likely hindered by the agency’s chronic under-staffing and under-resourcing.

“This brazen power grab tramples on the voices of local voters and harms working families,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said in a statement. “Instead of solving local problems locally, local governments will have to come to Austin to seek permission to act from extreme state officials who have already shown that they have never met a worker protection measure they like.”

He said the federation of labor unions will continue its work at the Texas Capitol by talking to legislators about what’s at stake if HB 2127 becomes law. And beyond the pink dome, he stressed the importance of communicating with workers about their right to unionize and voting for officials who represent their values.

“At this point, it’s not really about whether we have hope,” Levy said. “We have a duty to continue the fight.”

Faith groups and nonprofits also worry about HB 2127 potentially overturning local regulations on payday and auto-title lending that currently exist in 49 Texas cities. The bill’s latest version would protect ordinances that were adopted before 2023 and would be valid under the current law, but some critics have warned that the legislation’s language would leave cities unable to update their local rules in order to effectively regulate new predatory loan products.

Republicans have also taken aim this year at specific local regulations, including bills to prevent local governments from enacting mask mandates and installing protections for tenants facing eviction.

From The Texas Tribune