AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Legislature strikes back against local leaders.
Critics call it the “Death Star bill” by comparing its power to annihilate ordinances to the planet-destroying space station from "Star Wars." The plan advancing in the Capitol would tighten up rules on which areas city and county leaders can impose regulations in. While dozens of mayors are against it, Republicans contend it is a pro-business measure.
Some Austin City Council members passed labor protections such as giving construction workers time to rest because they believe local leaders have the best understanding of their community’s needs, not state lawmakers.
“We were elected to serve and represent our community’s interest,” said Vanessa Fuentes, who represents District 2 on the Austin City Council. “To be honest, you know, having the state legislature breathing down our necks here at the local level, it’s a misplacement of priorities.”
“Let’s not lose sight of what’s at risk, and that is fair working conditions and strong environmental standards for Texans, as well as, you know, anti-discrimination protections for Texans. Those are all important priorities that I believe our local communities deserve and have a right to,” Fuentes continued.
Texas Republicans in the state legislature say regulating those issues is outside the scope of local authority and that there needs to be consistency for small businesses operating across the state.
“This is the most pro-business bill this session, but after a pandemic, and now weathering historic inflation, Texas job creators deserve the certainty that this bill delivers,” Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, said on the Senate floor.
Republican state senators gave final approval this week to a House bill to curb local authorities from enacting any ordinances beyond what is explicitly said in state law. That includes areas in labor, business, property and natural resources.
One group representing independent businesses points to a Dallas City Council proposal to restrict gas-powered lawn equipment as an example to show how overall the patchwork of local rules unfairly creates complications and increases costs.
“So you have to imagine for a small business owner, operating even in multiple jurisdictions, it’s especially a compliance nightmare. To keep up with, again, not just state and federal regulations, but city regulations, county regulations,” sad Annie Spilman, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
“Local control [is] important, but there’s also local out of control and stepping outside of their jurisdiction, which we have seen them do. There are protections in place on the state and federal level, regulating major streams of commerce and protecting workers,” Spilman went on to say.
With House Speaker Dade Phelan and Gov. Greg Abbott backing the push, Democrats including Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, are worried about the lack of guidance when state law is silent on an issue and local authorities will be left hamstrung. Eckhardt is a former Travis County judge.
“Not only will it take too long, we won’t find the right local balance. By definition, a statewide bill would have to have statewide application, which will essentially require a lowest common denominator rather than the kind of innovation and carefully crafted trade off that you get with a city council or commissioner’s court,” Eckhardt told Spectrum News.
Before the bill reaches Abbott’s desk, House Republicans will have to decide whether to accept the tweaks the upper chamber passes or hash out their differences behind closed doors in a special committee.