AUSTIN, Texas — Construction workers throughout Texas are under the blistering sun. Austin and Dallas have ordinances that require water breaks every four hours. But as extreme heat grips the state, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a new law that says cities can no longer enforce that rule.
“The optics are horrible,” said David Anderson, the owner of Centex Countertops. “Period. The optics are very bad.”
David Anderson has worked in construction for decades. He says his employees have access to water at all times and get a break every two hours. Water breaks can no longer be mandated starting in September, but that won’t stop Anderson from allowing them.
“It doesn’t impact my company, because we’re not gonna work our boys like mules anyway,” he said. “You can’t go out in this kind of heat and work for sustained periods without water breaks.”
Supporters of the bill use the same argument, saying it’s just good business to treat workers well, and it doesn’t need to be over-regulated.
“In this environment, where we have something like 800,000 unfilled jobs in the state of Texas, if an employer doesn’t treat its employees well, they’re going to find it impossible to retain them,” said Glenn Hamer, the president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.
He adds this law will make it easier for companies to operate and expand across the state. The law focuses on eliminating local codes related to labor, agriculture, business, finance and more.
“The cities are still going to have quite a bit on their plate: Police, fire, all the things surrounding zoning for the most part, all of the offerings in arts and culture,” Hamer said. “So we believe that this bill really helped solidify what cities should be doing and what the state should be doing, and it provides the regulatory certainty that our great Texas businesses need to thrive.”
But mayors across the state worry this law will limit local officials’ ability to respond to unique needs in their community. In a Dallas Morning News op-ed, more than 50 Texas mayors call the bill hypocritical, since the state wouldn’t want overreach from the federal government. And, they say eliminating certain ordinances can hinder a leaders’ ability to make cities safer for workers and residents.
“It’s really moving away from a core principle of… taking away the direct access that people have on the governmental body influencing, impacting their day-to-day life in the greatest extent,” said George Fuller, the mayor of McKinney. “A basic principle and foundation of [the Republican] party ideology was local control, where residents had… the ability to have input and influence on their government. And they’re stripping that away. You know, you look at the state when the federal government comes in and tries to regulate the state. What do our legislators do? They go crazy [because] it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Well, I would submit the same thing: It’s not one-size-fits-all in cities.”
As a business owner himself, he said he understands why legislators pushed the bill. But Fuller still expects a lot of consequences to come from it.
“For businesses, it is very difficult to go into different markets where there are different rules, different regulations, and they have to adapt very differently depending on what side of the dividing municipality, property line, if you will, that they’re on,” Fuller said. “The desire was to try to make a consistent playing field for businesses, and I get that. The problem is there are many more things beyond just those decisions that a company is making that impacts the community that those companies are located in. And so when you broad-stroke implement a bill like 2127, where you’re using a sledgehammer in a surgery versus a scalpel, I think that’s the problem.”
Blake Margolis, the mayor of Rowlett, says he will keep operating as normal until the bill is clarified or until there’s guidance from the city attorney.
“Unfortunately, this bill will be tested in court, probably over many different cases, because of the ambiguity of the bill,” Margolis said.
He adds that this “undermines local democracy” because residents elect local leaders to be their voice in their communities.
“There’s a number of things that basically we cannot preempt the state on now through HB 2127,” Margolis said. “But there are also very important ordinances behind these codes that were created for a reason. Kind of like the National Fire Code; every code in the National Fire Code was created because something happened that resulted in the creation of that code… It’s unfortunate, because when you attack local control, you attack the people who live in those communities, and their ability to make their voices heard through the representatives that they elect, like me.”
Gerard Hudspeth, the mayor of Denton, is more open to the measure, saying “local control is important, but it’s not limitless.” He used an example of his own city to explain why.
“We passed a resolution, ‘Medicaid for All.’ Well, the city of Denton is not going to fund Medicaid for the entire United States, not in the budget,” Hudspeth said. “Other than how we treat our local employees, we have no control in that space. And so that’s an area where we reached too far, in my estimation, but the majority of the council felt it was the right thing to do to show solidarity… But I just disagreed and dissented in that vote. We need to, as a city, focus on potholes, safety, first responders, taxes, making sure we maintain parks, and we’re sustainable.”
Hudspeth agrees with the other mayors that the bill could take months, if not years, to figure out.
“It’s overly broad and not tailored narrowly,” he said. “Someone has to be the decision maker on whether this is applied correctly or not… We’ll manage it as best we can.”
Fuller says this will impact Texans more than it will city governments.
“My residents cannot compete in the voice of influence at the state of Texas with big business lobby groups,” he said. “And they’re the voice that we all say we care about, even our state legislators. They all say that we care about the voice of the little guy. Well, right now, I don’t think that we’re respecting the little guy... It’s not cities, it’s the residents in my community who have lost their voice with a governing body that sets those ordinances and laws and whatnot that impact their day-to-day life greater than any other governing agency.”
Hamer, with the Texas Association of Business, says the law is a win-win for cities and the state.
“I believe over time, even some of the mayors that today are critical will come to see this bill as something that is beneficial for their cities,” he said. “This bill is going to age like a fine wine; it’s going to get better over time.”
And for those out under the Texas sun, at least one construction manager says this law won’t impact the way he treats his employees.
“I’ve been an employee in days gone by. I know what abuse looks like. I won’t be that guy,” Anderson said.