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Houston sues state in attempt to block new law that erodes cities’ power

The Houston skyline in November 2017.
Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune
The Houston skyline in November 2017.

Houston officials sued the state of Texas on Monday to stop a sweeping law aimed at gutting all kinds of local ordinances and sapping the power of the state’s bluer urban areas.

The law — House Bill 2127, dubbed the “Death Star” bill by opponents — was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, marking Texas Republicans’ biggest attempt yet to kneecap local governments in a yearslong assault on Texas’ major metropolitan areas, often governed by Democrats.

The law prevents cities and counties from creating local ordinances that go further than what’s allowed under broad areas of state law, an attempt to overturn cities’ progressive policies. Among those policies are mandated water breaks for construction workers in Dallas and Austin, a component of the law that’s gained more criticism as Texas experiences a drastic summer heat wave.

Leaders of local governments across the state criticized the proposal as a massive power grab that would upend how the state has operated for nearly a century and prevent them from responding to local needs. Under the new state law, cities and counties could not pass local rules that touch on broad “fields” regulated by state law — like labor, agriculture, finance and natural resources. The law’s broad language, they have argued, makes it difficult to determine which local ordinances are now illegal and will prompt a litany of lawsuits.

In Houston, the law would overturn local ordinances regulating tow-truck companies, outdoor music festivals, noise regulations and boarding homes, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a Monday press conference. But the full extent of what local laws would become illegal remains unclear.

“What this means is that cities like the city of Houston cannot pass ordinances in these areas unless the state of Texas explicitly gives us permission to do so,” Turner said. “That is a total reversal from the way things have been in this state for more than a century.”

In the lawsuit filed Monday in Travis County court, Houston leaders argue that the new law violates the state constitution and significantly weakens cities’ authority to self-govern. The law conflicts with a portion of the constitution that allows cities to enact their own laws, they argue. In order for the law to take effect, voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment, they said.

The state constitution already forbids cities from enacting laws “inconsistent with” the constitution or laws passed by state lawmakers. Houston officials see an opening there to strike down the law, arguing a local ordinance can’t conflict with state law if there isn’t a specific state law the ordinance would directly conflict with, the lawsuit says.

Abbott and business lobbying groups, particularly the National Federation of Independent Business, have long pushed for a wide-ranging law like HB 2127 that negates city rules like mandated water breaks and paid sick leave ordinances in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — which courts had prevented from taking effect.

Proponents of the bill on Monday blasted the involvement of Local Solutions Support Center — a California organization that bills itself as a national hub to counter state laws that undermine local governments’ ability to self-govern — in the lawsuit.

“I am not surprised that leftist cities are working with activists from California to try and slow down the implementation” of HB 2127, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who authored the law, wrote in a tweet Monday. “I have confidence this bill will become law, and help ensure Texas’ economy thrives for future generations.”

The new law is the most wide-ranging effort to-date by Texas Republicans to undercut the leaders of the state’s large urban areas. In recent years, lawmakers have passed laws to prevent cities and counties from requiring landlords to rent to tenants with federal housing vouchers or regulating fracking within their limits. If cities and counties want to raise property taxes a certain amount each year or rein in their police budgets, they have to get voter approval under legislation approved in the past few years. Local governments can no longer enact mask mandates or require schools or businesses to close if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak under a new law passed this year.

HB 2127 is slated to take effect Sept. 1.


From The Texas Tribune

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