Texas cities may soon lose ability to act on air quality, worker safety, consumer rights or housing
Cities in Texas may soon have less power to protect the air you breathe, improve the safety of your work site, or guarantee your rights as a renter.
That's after the Texas Legislature passed a sweeping bill, HB 2127, over the weekend that would make huge swaths of state legal code off-limits to cities and counties. The legislation would bar cities and counties from going beyond what the state already regulates in law related to labor, occupations, natural resources, agriculture, finance, property, business and commerce and insurance.
The measure would turn many business-as-usual practices in Texas cities and counties into illegal practices overnight, leaving local governments open to untold lawsuits.
The bill awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature, and he’s reportedly expressed support for the bill.
The bill, authored by Lubbock Rep. Dustin Burrows, states that “local regulations have led to a patchwork of regulations that apply inconsistently across this state.” It drew support from lobbyists from an array of industries as well as conservative activists arguing small businesses would be helped by reducing local authority.
“Texas won’t allow ill-conceived & inconsistent decisions to take down the ship that drives our state’s economy,” Burrows tweeted last week as the bill neared the finish line.
Opponents argue it’s a corporate giveaway that radically overturns a century of Texas law by stripping cities and counties of the ability to address the problems facing their constituents.
“It wasn’t small businesses that were pushing for this,” said Luis Figueroa of the left-leaning think tank Every Texan. “It was the big corporations that were pushing it.”
City officials are now scrambling to understand the legislation’s sweeping consequences. Plano policy and government relations director Andrew Fortune said even mundane city ordinances may no longer be lawful.
“If my neighbor decides that they want to have roosters and an unlimited amount of chickens, or they want to have pigs in their front and back yard, we have real questions now,” Fortune said. “Is that within our purview for us to regulate, and make sure that in a residential neighborhood you’re not being woken up at the crack of dawn by a rooster?”
Fortune said Plano is still “digesting” the bill and it was hard to say exactly how it would affect the city.
Same thing in Fort Worth, where spokesperson Reyne Telles said one thing giving the city heartburn is that residents may no longer be able to ask their city council to address local problems. Rather, they may have to appeal to the Texas Legislature.
“I think that the biggest issue for us may be taking away that home rule authority or preempting the authority and then it falling to a body that may meet only once every two years,” said Telles.
As a means of enforcement, the bill allows individuals and corporations to sue cities over their rules and stripped municipalities of the ability to use government immunity as a defense.
“Litigation that’s going to be tied up in the courts really fleshing out the elements of this broad bill – that's going to come with a price tag,” said Fortune. “We’re funded by the taxpayer.”
Texas’ right-wing leaders have taken increasingly antagonistic action to undercut the state’s mostly Democratic-run large cities in recent years.
HB 2127 would likely kill rules in Dallas and Austin that require water breaks for construction workers, and erase other worker protections, labor advocates say.
“We just witnessed the largest transfer of power away from working people and into the hands of a few power mad, anti-worker legislators that our state has ever seen,” the Texas AFL-CIO tweeted.
The law explicitly blocks cities from “regulating evictions or otherwise prohibiting, restricting, or delaying” the eviction process, following the passage of a permanent ordinance in Austin to give tenants extra time to make up a missed rent payment before facing eviction. Dallas is in the process of promulgating its own so-called “right to cure” ordinance, and the bill may scuttle that.
Ben Martin from the tenant rights group Texas Housers said the state has large and growing shortage of housing that low-income Texans can afford, and it is driving record eviction cases. This bill makes it harder for cities to help vulnerable residents keep a roof over their families’ head, he said.
The implications for housing are likely massive, he said, though it’s hard to pin down exactly what is and isn’t off limits when the law is so vague: Does HB 2127 block cities from offering legal help for tenants facing eviction? What about local rental assistance programs, or ordinances guaranteeing the right of tenants to organize?
Even some code compliance rules could be pre-empted, Martin said, like cities with programs designed to crack down on slumlords who repeatedly violate health and safety codes putting tenants at risk.
“The real weapon here is that it's very hard to tell what this bill is going to do. And it's going to certainly have a chilling effect on local governments ability to address and innovate around housing affordability and protections for tenants,” Martin said.
Payday and auto title lenders also notched a win with HB 2127, likely blocking any new local regulations of high-cost small-dollar loans. Texas has some of the lightest state regulations on payday lenders, and they charge some of the highest fees in the nation. Research shows these loans often pull people deeper into poverty, draining billions in spending power from low-income households.
“This bill is supposed to support local economies and small businesses, but this kind of lending actively hurts local economies and small businesses,” said Ann Baddour from the economic justice group Texas Appleseed.
Dozens of cities have passed consumer protections since 2011 to rein in some of the most predatory practices of the industry, and those local ordinances now cover about one in three Texans, according to Baddour. She points out that they’ve passed in both liberal and conservative areas, and with the support of groups across the ideological spectrum.
Baddour said HB 2127 allows current local payday regulations to remain in effect, but there are limitations. Existing lawsuits could undermine some of those local protections, and payday lenders have been known to tweak their business model to get around the existing rules.
“I can't predict the future, but I can say that this is a dramatic shift and really takes a lot of power out of the hands of citizens and local communities to control what their community looks like, what the rules of operation are in their community, what the values of their community are,” Baddour said.
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