Texas' 'Death Star' could kill a slew of local laws. Here's how.
There was a disturbance in the force for Texas cities and counties this legislative session.
A bill dubbed the Death Star Bill — after the moon-sized technological terrors of Star Wars fame — passed both houses and is likely to be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Opponents say House Bill 2127 is a continuing erosion of local control by GOP state lawmakers.
HB 2127 would preempt a slew of local laws — anything from regulations on construction standards to payday lenders to bans on discrimination in hiring and housing. It would require cities and counties to follow state law or potentially be taken to court.
Proponents argue local policies are too disjointed; a law in one city may not apply to another. They say the bill was necessary for businesses in particular.
Cities and counties are worried their local laws could go the way of Alderaan, the fictional planet in Star Wars. Here's a rundown of the bill and some concerns about it.
Why is this happening?
The bill is part of a long trend of GOP lawmakers trying to undo policies enacted by largely Democratic leaders. Things like:
- Ride-hailing regulations
- Single-use plastic bag bans
- Paid sick leave
- Bans on fracking within city limits
Democratic state Rep. Rafael Anchía of Dallas said in a House hearing in March that state lawmakers have taken a more proactive stance on preempting those policies. Anchía said the Death Star strategy would eliminate a lot of these policies before they even crop up — even if they never crop up. He pointed to efforts to prevent bans on gas stoves as a good example.
“I’m scared about aliens sometimes. I’m scared about alien abduction, but I’m not going to legislate something even though I’m scared about it,” he said. “So, it really just bugs me when people come up here and offer up these boogeymen that don’t even exist in Texas to suddenly try and legislate and impact local cities.”
Proponents say the bill makes it easier for businesses. For example, a law requiring paid sick leave may exist in one city and not in another, complicating how the business operates.
What does this bill do?
HB 2127 basically bans a city or county from putting laws in their charters that conflict with what's already on the books in Texas. It applies to nine areas of the Texas Constitution — specific codes within it, to be precise:
- Business and Commerce
- Local Government
- Natural Resources
Protections and rules for things like nondiscrimination policies, worker protections and even urban farms are enshrined in those codes.
The bill requires any city regulation to conform with those codes, and if it doesn't, someone can take a city or county to court.
Here are some local protections and ordinances it could affect.
Predatory lending regulations
Daniel Elkin agrees with GOP lawmakers that the patchwork of local rules is, indeed, confusing. Elkin works at Come Dream, Come Build, a Brownsville nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing.
He said HB 2127 gives businesses some relative security.
"You know, if you live in a bubble, you have predictability. Right. And that's kind of what struck me," he said. "You see this not just here at this state level, but you see this nationally, internationally, this attempt to kind of insulate business from local ordinances."
Texas has long struggled to regulate predatory lenders, for example, and a lot of Texas cities have had local protections on the books for more than a decade. Brownsville's protections cap interest rates on loans, so borrowers aren't crushed by interest rates when they repay their loans on payday.
Elkin says 90% of the clients who walk through CDCB's doors have been impacted by predatory lending.
While HB 2127 allows cities to keep ordinances passed before Jan. 1, it wouldn't allow them to make new rules on predatory lending without going to the Texas Legislature. That's going to be a problem, Elkin says, because payday lenders are continually finding new ways to skirt the law.
"The regulatory questions are immense, and so this is a real area where we're concerned that a city like Brownsville, who is uniquely impacted by this, is not going to be able to address it," he said. "It's going to be completely held at the state level, which is much harder to kind of make inroads with."
HB 2127 would effectively eliminate those protections, because they're not in Texas' Labor Code.
Ahead of the Senate's approval, Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe argued cities could still report unsafe work places through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Opponents argued Texas doesn't have requirements for when — or at what temperature — breaks should be mandated.
Ben Brenneman with the Austin chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said the bill could also preempt pandemic-era protections for workers during COVID-19. He worked with crews in Austin, constructing both Q2 Stadium and the Kalahari Resort in Round Rock. Brenneman said his union had no COVID-related deaths during the pandemic, unlike many of the sister chapters across the state.
"I wouldn't say the things that we did in Austin and Travis County would be right for San Angelo or Hidalgo County, but it was right for us," he said. "I feel like we did the right thing to protect our members and our construction workers. This was something we did through local ordinance."
At the last minute, the bill was changed to include an amendment that would effectively ban any city or county from regulating local evictions.
Elkin said the ban is nearly identical to a failed House measure, HB 2035.
"They basically put [an eviction ban] into the Death Star Bill, and they did it kind of through shady means," he said. "They just kind of threw in the wording of that ... which is very unfortunate."
If signed by the governor, opponents say, the near-planetary scale of this bill, like its namesake, could have a lot of unforeseen implications and would likely lead to frivolous lawsuits and erode local control.
Democratic state Sen. Nathan Johnson of Dallas said it would jeopardize the whole idea of cities. Now, he argued, local laws could be up to state lawmakers.
"I know it's not your intention to wipe out cities altogether, but many of us have expressed concern that that's effectively going to be the result that's going to shift the burden to us," he said, referring to state lawmakers. "And the state doesn't exactly have a good record of thinking of everything that ever can happen."
Adam Haynes, policy director for the Conference of Urban Counties, has been working at the Capitol in some form or fashion since the mid-90s when tort reform, the fight against so-called frivolous lawsuits and trial lawyers, ruled the day.
He said counties would likely dodge a lot of lawsuits brought against policies under HB 2127, with cities facing the brunt of the litigation. But, he said, the bill's breadth leaves a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of opportunity for litigation.
"Anybody can sue ... even if it's frivolous, and that's the part that we just don't understand," he said. "Texas is a business-friendly state. We get that. We check that box all day long. But in this instance, the trial lawyers are coming out of this like bandits."