Texas Republicans ended a patchwork of local rules they say hurt business. They also eroded powers of city councils.

6 months 2 days 18 hours ago Wednesday, June 07 2023 Jun 7, 2023 June 07, 2023 5:06 PM June 07, 2023 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
An aerial view of downtown Houston from Interstate 45 on Sept. 16, 2019. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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A yearslong war waged by Republicans in the Texas Legislature to erode the power of the state’s bluer urban areas escalated this year with House Bill 2127, a sweeping bill that nixes all kinds of local ordinances.

Texas lawmakers pushed through a bill long sought by Gov. Greg Abbott aimed at overturning cities’ progressive policies and preventing them from enacting them in the future. The bill was Republicans’ broadest attack yet on local governments — so broad that local officials aren’t quite sure just how many local laws on the books will soon be illegal.

HB 2127 bars cities and counties from creating local ordinances that go further than what’s allowed under broad swaths of state law — including labor, natural resources and finance. Abbott and business lobbying groups, particularly the National Federation of Independent Business, have long pursued such a law, arguing that it’s necessary to untangle a growing patchwork of local regulations that burden business owners and hamper the state’s economic growth — which is overwhelmingly concentrated in the state’s urban areas.

Abbott touted the bill as one of the Legislature’s big conservative achievements at an event Friday at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.

“We did across-the-board regulatory preemption so that local governments — the city of Austin, for example — are not going to be able to micromanage businesses in the state of Texas, especially driving up the costs for local businesses,” Abbott said. “We are going to have one regulatory regime across the entire state on massive subject areas that will make the cost of business even lower, the ease of business even better.”

But a coalition of opponents — among them labor advocates, local officials, environmentalists and Democrats — deemed the measure a massive power grab that would stop local governments from taking care of each community’s needs, especially in matters like expanded worker benefits in which the Legislature has been silent.

“HB 2127 undermines our ability to make choices about our safety, health, and well-being at the local level,” said Luis Figueroa, chief of legislative affairs at the left-leaning nonprofit Every Texan. “Driven by corporate interests that seek to limit local freedom and democracy, HB 2127 prioritizes the elite few in power over the will of everyday Texans and does not reflect our true shared Texan values.”

The bill — carried by state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock and state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, both Republicans — targets local ordinances that try to expand worker benefits beyond what’s in state law. Once the bill takes effect Sept. 1, it will knock out ordinances in Dallas and Austin that require a 10-minute water break for construction workers for every four hours of work. Mandatory paid sick leave ordinances in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio will also go by the wayside — though court battles had prevented them from ever taking effect.

The bill goes beyond just reining in some cities’ labor protections. Opponents argued the legislation will make it more difficult for local governments seeking to combat predatory lending, excessive noise and invasive species or enforce nondiscrimination ordinances.

Austin officials said they won’t be able to enforce the city’s “fair chance” hiring ordinance, which aims to reduce recidivism by making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to get a job. Cities also can’t enact protections for tenants facing eviction.

Months after lawmakers first introduced the bill, cities are still grappling with how far it reaches. Cities’ attorneys are poring through ordinances trying to figure out which will get struck down immediately when the bill goes into effect in September. It’s possible it will take numerous court battles from businesses contesting local ordinances to figure out just how broad the bill is. Some city officials fear they’ll be forced to defend local laws that are perfectly within bounds under the state Constitution.

The bill’s “vague language poses more questions than it answers,” San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said.

For now, the bill represents a possible climax in the Texas GOP’s crusade against the state’s major urban areas, which are often run by Democrats. The Legislature has passed several measures over the last decade aimed at kneecapping local leaders — including laws that force local governments to get voter approval before touching their police budget or collecting a certain amount in property taxes each year.

This year, Republicans enacted legislation to prevent local governments from enacting mask mandates as well as school and business closures in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

But in other areas, GOP efforts to override cities failed. A bill by state Rep. Ellen Troxclair, an Austin Republican, to upend how that city plans to pay its voter-approved expansion of public transit, known as Project Connect, died after a procedural move from state Rep. John Bucy, an Austin Democrat.

Enough Republicans also sided with Democrats who represent the state’s urban areas to kill a GOP-backed bill to loosen local laws governing the construction of accessory dwelling units — otherwise known as ADUs or “granny flats.” That idea was part of a broad effort to lower local barriers to housing production as Texas faces a housing affordability crisis that has fallen hardest on the state’s major cities. A majority of House Democrats argued those decisions were best left to local governments — to the frustration of housing advocates.

But GOP lawmakers may not be done with efforts to broadly preempt city ordinances, teasing that they may build upon HB 2127 in later meetings of the Legislature. In response to a tweet speculating about that possibility, Burrows said, “It’s never too early.”

Disclosure: Every Texan and Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/06/07/texas-republicans-cities-local-control/.

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