To combat recent pro-labor and environmental initiatives moving through the state’s urban centers, a conservative lawmaker from West Texas is proposing a bill aimed at stripping local governments’ authority to regulate a wide range of policy areas beyond the rules already set by the state.

Though supporters and opponents of the proposal agree the broad approach is almost certain to result in some unintended consequences, House Bill 2127 filed by state Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) has the enthusiastic support of powerful business groups eager to head off potential paid sick leave mandates, predictive scheduling ordinances and plastic bag bans they say threaten the state’s pro-business reputation.

“As a state, we’ve been very successful — I think every session that I’ve been governor — in overturning local regulations,” Gov. Greg Abbott told members of the National Federation of Independent Business at luncheon in Austin last month. “What we’re seeking to do this session [with HB 2127] is more of a broad stroke.”

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 institute any of the other policies listed by the bill’s author as harmful to business.

“We’re in San Antonio wondering what this [bill] actually does,” he said, “and why we can’t be more prescriptive about whatever issues we’re trying to solve.”

Coyle said the bill’s approach leaves the cities responsible for combing through their ordinances to figure out which ones would need to be eliminated. City attorneys from Houston and Dallas joined Coyle at the hearing to raise their concerns.

Last session a bill aimed at prohibiting local governments from regulating private employment practices, such as paid sick leave ordinances, was approved by the Senate but not the House.

HB 2127, which has a Senate companion 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 occupations — each of which are governed by their own state regulatory code. A version presented to the Texas House 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 to the Legislature with their agenda that they’re not able to get through here at the State Capitol, have now gone to some of our more progressive cities and had those [policies] adopted,” Burrows told the committee.

“Whereas we dealt with maybe one preemption ordinance in 2019 and two in 2021, there are a vast number of bills now filed dealing with preemption,” Burrows said. “… I think many in the Legislature are tired of playing whack-a-mole.”

Political shift

San Antonio city leaders don’t entirely disagree with the idea of protecting local businesses from policies propelled by progressive groups in recent years.

Though the city hasn’t instituted some of the policies popular in other Texas cities, like a plastic bag ban, it did adopt a paid sick leave ordinance in 2018 after a petition drive led by progressive and labor groups such as the Texas AFL-CIO and Texas Organizing Project collected roughly 144,000 signatures. The policy never went into effect due to legal challenges.

“Our city government didn’t even initiate [the paid sick leave ordinance], it responded to a petition that was brought under the laws of the state,” Coyle told the committee.

“We don’t recklessly, haphazardly do things to hurt the economy of the state and certainly of our own city,” he added. “I think it’s working as it is today, with the specific things that the Legislature has decided it needs 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 through preemption bills passed in Republican-dominated state legislatures.

“We built power for young people at the state and local level through voter registration and grassroots issue campaigns,” MOVE Texas Advocacy Director Alex Birnel said of the effort at Wednesday’s hearing. HB 2127 is “a direct and overt attack by politicians to slash people’s freedoms to pass local rules for their own communities.”

Legal logistics

The City of San Antonio’s legal team has spent weeks working with other city attorneys across the state to interpret the bill and come up with a master list of questions and concerns.

Still, confusion about the proposed legislation was on full display Wednesday as dozens of speakers laid out widely different interpretations to the State Affairs Committee.

“The occupations code addresses heavy commercial vehicles, so does that mean the city will no longer be able to regulate which roads those vehicles travel on or where they park at our airport?” Coyle asked the committee. “Hazardous Materials are referenced in several codes. Can we not prohibit the disposal of certain hazardous materials in our municipal sewer system?”

The questions were hypothetical to the lawmakers presiding, but Burrows did take pointed questions from fellow lawmakers who had already received an earful from the local governments they represent.

Throughout that discussion Burrows said the bill as written would not impact non-discrimination ordinances, short-term rentals, fireworks regulations, watering restrictions, nonagricultural animals, zoning and building codes.

“This bill is designed to be somewhat of a living document,” Burrows told the committee. “It relies upon the case law to basically say, if we occupy a field … we’re going to be the sole persons who are going to occupy and regulate that.

“If we’re doing a bad job of regulating something, let’s regulate it better.”

Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas), the committee’s most vocal skeptic of Burrows’ bill, said it was ridiculous to suggest the state could fill in all of the regulatory gaps.

“I know that from the author’s perspective it feels like whack-a-mole,” said Anchía. … But “we have to deal with hypotheticals, because once this bill is out in the world, everything is going to be litigated.”

Among the bill’s most perplexing provisions, Anchía pointed out, was one allowing for lawsuits against cities to be taken to neighboring counties in search of more ideologically friendly courts.

Burrows told the committee he expanded the jurisdiction in which legal action can be brought to ensure challenges to municipal policy would not have to go through “a completely hostile jurisdiction.”

“The City of San Antonio is going to get dragged into court, not even in Bexar County … potentially in adjacent counties, right,” said Anchía. “It’s going to cause cities to have 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 Birnel is a member of the San Antonio Report’s Community Advisory Board.

Avatar photo

Andrea Drusch

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.