To combat the recent pro-labor and environmental initiatives moving through the state’s urban centers, a conservative West Texas lawmaker is proposing a bill aimed at stripping local governments of the power to regulate a wide range of policy areas beyond the rules already in place. determined by the state.
Although supporters and opponents of the proposal agree that the sweeping approach is almost certain to have some unintended consequences, House Bill 2127, filed by state Rep. Dustin Burroughs (R-Lubbock), has the enthusiastic support of powerful business groups eager to prevent potentially paid sick leave mandates, predictable scheduling regulations and plastic bag bans that they say threaten the state’s pro-business reputation.
“As a state, we’ve had a lot of success — I think every session I’ve been governor — in repealing local regulations,” Gov. Greg Abbott told members of the National Federation of Independent Business at a luncheon in Austin last month. “What we are aiming to do this session [with HB 2127] is more of a broad move.’
At the bill’s first hearing Wednesday, San Antonio Assistant City Manager Jeff Coyle told the committee the city has no plans to revive paid sick leave, ban plastic bags or enact any of the other policies the bill’s author cited as harmful for business.
“We’re in San Antonio and we’re wondering what this is [bill] it actually does,” he said, “and why can’t we be more proactive about the problems we’re trying to solve.”
Coyle said the bill’s approach leaves it up to cities to review their ordinances to figure out which ones will need to be removed. City attorneys from Houston and Dallas joined Coyle at the hearing to voice their concerns.
Last session, a bill seeking to bar local governments from regulating private employment practices, such as paid sick leave ordinances, passed the Senate but not the House.
HB 2127, which has a companion in the Senate filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe), would go much further.
The bill would prevent cities from regulating agriculture, finance, insurance, labor, natural resources and professions — each governed by its own state regulatory code. A version presented to the Texas House of Representatives State Affairs Committee on Wednesday would expand the list of restricted policy areas to include property and business.
“Some of the same advocates that come into the legislature with their agenda that they can’t get done here at the state Capitol have now gone to some of our more progressive cities and had these [policies] accepted,” Burroughs told the committee.
“Whereas we were dealing with maybe one preemption ordinance in 2019 and two in 2021, there are now a huge number of bills that have been filed that deal with preemption,” Burroughs said. “… I think a lot of the Legislature is tired of playing the mole.”
San Antonio city leaders aren’t entirely on board with the idea of protecting local businesses from policies pushed by progressive groups in recent years.
While the city has not implemented some of the policies popular in other Texas cities, such as banning plastic bags, it passed a paid sick leave ordinance in 2018 after a petition led by progressive and labor groups such as the Texas AFL-CIO and The Texas Organizing Project has collected approximately 144,000 signatures. The policy never took effect due to legal challenges.
“Our city government did not even initiate [the paid sick leave ordinance]it responded to a petition that was filed under state law,” Coyle told the committee.
“We don’t recklessly, casually do things to hurt the economy of the state and certainly our own city,” he added. “I think it’s working the way it is today with the specific things that the Legislature decided it needed to step in and fix.”
Labor activists at the hearing were far less conciliatory about the proposed changes. Across the nation, progressives are increasingly finding their work in blue cities undone by preemptive bills passed in Republican-dominated state legislatures.
“We’ve built power for young people at the state and local level through voter registration and grassroots issue campaigns,” MOVE Texas Advocacy Director Alex Birnell said of the effort at Wednesday’s hearing. HB 2127 is “a direct and blatant attack by politicians to limit people’s freedoms to make local rules for their own communities.”
The City of San Antonio’s legal team spent weeks working with other city attorneys across the state to interpret the bill and develop a master list of questions and concerns.
Still, the confusion over the proposed legislation was on full display Wednesday as dozens of speakers offered wildly different interpretations of the state committee on the issues.
“The professional code applies to heavy commercial vehicles, so does that mean the city will no longer be able to regulate which roads these vehicles travel on or where they park at our airport?” Coyle asked the committee. “Hazardous materials are mentioned in several codes. Can’t we ban the discharge of certain hazardous materials into our municipal sewer system?’
The questions were hypothetical to the presiding lawmakers, but Burroughs answered pointed questions from fellow lawmakers who had already heard from the local governments they represent.
During that discussion, Burroughs said the bill as written would not affect nondiscrimination ordinances, short-term rentals, fireworks regulations, watering restrictions, non-farm animals, zoning and building codes.
“This bill is designed to be somewhat of a living document,” Burroughs told the committee. “It relies on case law to say that if we occupy a field … we will be the only persons to occupy and regulate that.
“If we’re bad at regulating something, let’s regulate it better.”
Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), the committee’s most vocal skeptic of Burroughs’ bill, said it was ludicrous to suggest the state could plug all the regulatory gaps.
“I know from the author’s point of view it feels like a molehill,” Anchia said. … But “we have to deal with hypotheticals because once this bill comes out, everything will be judged.”
Among the bill’s most disturbing provisions, Anchia pointed out, is one that allows lawsuits against cities to be transferred to neighboring counties in search of more ideologically favorable courts.
Burrows told the committee he had expanded the jurisdiction in which legal action could be brought to ensure that challenges to municipal policy would not have to go through a “completely hostile jurisdiction”.
“The city of San Antonio is going to be sued, not even in Bexar County … potentially in neighboring counties, right,” Anchia said. “This will leave cities having to defend litigation all over the place. … You could be in four or five different counties trying to deal with the ordinances that your residents have asked you to pass.”
Alex Birnell is a member of the San Antonio Report Community Advisory Board.