From Houston Public Media:
Over the past several years, Republican state lawmakers have passed laws blocking local governments from regulating issues ranging from fracking to ridesharing services. Now, legislators are poised to adopt a far broader measure to limit the self-government powers of cities and counties.
‘This is a kind of Death Star bill’
Bill Kelly has been tracking efforts by the State of Texas to limit local government powers ever since he started working as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s director of government relations seven years ago. He said Republican lawmakers are more aggressive this session than they’ve ever been before. But there’s one measure that concerns Kelly above all: House Bill 2127, known as the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act, which passed the House and is now in the Senate.
“It’s very concerning for Home Rule cities like Houston and about the 349 other Home Rule cities, because it takes eight different fields of government code, and basically says you will not legislate in this area unless we give you permission to,” Kelly said.
Those fields include labor and occupations, the environment, and finance, among others. Kelly said the only matter Houston regulates in its finance code is payday lending, loans at high rates of interest that need to be paid back immediately and target low-income residents and communities of color.
“Really awful practices that you’ve seen us and over 30 cities in Texas, from very conservative Midland to our friends in Austin, everybody has got these local ordinances that regulate payday lending. Those would be wiped out,” Kelly said.
Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, fears a wide range of protections for working class Texans would vanish.
“This is a kind of Death Star bill,” Khalil said. “Local government’s ability to protect tenants from slumlords could be banned. The ability to respond quickly to hurricanes and industrial fires could be banned. Many of the things that we have fought for, like a $15 minimum wage for airport workers and for workers on county construction projects.”
This last is particularly of concern to Khalil. He said his organization has worked closely with Harris County to craft a recently enacted policy enhancing worker safety on county construction jobs.
“Work in construction in Texas is extremely unsafe, with something on the order of about one worker dying a day due to safety considerations in Texas on these kinds of jobs,” Khalil said.
Harris County’s policy requires construction companies to show that they have a positive safety record. It prohibits companies that have a bad safety record from being able to apply for jobs for several years. The policy also requires that all workers on construction jobs have 10 hours of OSHA safety training and that managers have 30 hours of training.
“These are key ways to significantly reduce the number of fatalities on construction jobs in Texas, and local governments can use their existing authority, their existing procurement authority to do that. But if this bill gets passed…that authority very much is at risk,” Khalil said.
The potential benefits for businesses of ‘regulatory consistency’
So why are Republican lawmakers going so big when it comes to preempting local control? State Representative Dustin Burrows of Lubbock is the author of the bill. He says local governments have a patchwork of regulations that increases the cost of doing business in Texas.
“This bill provides the regulatory stability and certainty that enables business owners to expand their businesses to other cities within Texas with more consistency, creating more jobs and prosperity in the process,” Burrows told the House at the start of the floor debate over HB 2127. “At the same time, it actually gives local governments a hand by giving them a simple reason why they won’t, in fact, be bringing a vote to countless issues that activists have been harassing them to pass locally.”
Burrows gave the examples of a restaurant owner with two restaurants on either side of a city line, as well as of tradesmen operating in the same area but having to cross multiple jurisdictions in their daily work. “We want those small business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families not trying to navigate a Byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time they cross (a) city limits sign,” Burrows said.
State Senator Brandon Creighton authored an identical bill to HB 2127 in the Senate. He’s now the lead advocate for Burrows’ measure in the upper chamber.
“I had a CEO in my district out of the Conroe area that had businesses and trucking-related aspects to his business,” Creighton said. “He had hired three additional people to keep up with compliance city to city and had to let go of others and terminate their positions to be able to afford those new positions.”
Creighton balks at the notion that the bill would prohibit cities and counties from performing their functions of regulating on behalf of their residents. “I think we’re addressing what really for years has been an out-of-bounds aspect of what local governments felt like they have the authority to be doing in the first place,” Creighton said.
Senator Creighton says HB 2127 is likely to pass the Senate no later than next week. “The session before last,” Creighton said, “I passed a version of this bill five times out of the Senate. And it met its demise in the House very late in the last few days of session. It just ran out of time. But this has been a process over a few sessions and shouldn’t be any surprise.”
Opposition from local political leaders
Renée Cross, senior executive director of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs said HB 2127 will put the state in the position of having to act on matters it traditionally does not regulate.
“Texas has had a long-term history in having very limited government. That came out of the Constitution of 1876, post-Civil War. And the idea was to limit government, allow the localities to draft the best ordinances for the local people.”
If the bill passes, Cross says a lot of people could wind up falling through the cracks.
“And especially in a state such as Texas, where the populations, even just the land, the geography, everything is so different, one-size-fits-all could possibly cause some problems later on down the road.”
Those potential problems have earned the bill opposition from a wide range of local politicians. Fort Bend County Judge KP George, a Democrat, says the bill is both irresponsible and politically motivated.
“The same people putting these bills in place, their mantra was local power, and now they’re doing the exact opposite,” George said.
Senator Creighton noted that the bill was not bracketed to Democratic-led cities and counties, which may be why opposition to the bill has spread to Republican-led local governments as well.
“This isn’t just something that the Democratic leaders of a Houston, Texas or Austin, Texas are afraid of,” Cross said. “We’ve already been seeing mayors and county judges that are Republican that are concerned about this. For example, I’ve just read about the mayor of Bryan or the mayor of Irving (opposing the bill). Those aren’t exactly hotbeds of liberalism.”
Other preemption bills
As wide ranging as HB 2127 is, it’s far from the only bill preempting local control on the agenda for the 88th Legislature.
“We are actively tracking well over 1,000 bills that would impact city services,” the City of Houston’s Bill Kelly said. “And this is, by far and away, the most that we have ever had on our ‘oppose’ track.”
There are some bills where the city has made some progress in limiting the potential consequences of preemption. One is Senate Bill 1015, which governs rate increases by electric utilities. Kelly said that, from 2017 to the present, the City of Houston has saved residents $80 million by protesting rate increases from CenterPoint.
“We get to be able to protest because CenterPoint uses the exclusive right of our right-of-way to provide electricity,” Kelly said. “This initial legislation would have completely taken our authority away to be able to do those protests. That is in no way in the interest of anybody that cares about paying on their electric bill, and that’s something we fought hard for and are trying to get those protections added back.”
Kelly said that the city has had some success, and it’s hoping to moderate the bill further as it moves through the House.
Another measure Houston has been able to blunt the effects of is HB 1526, governing municipal parklands. The bill has already passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.
Kelly noted that, for every new home constructed in Houston, the city charges a flat fee of $700 that goes to fund parks.
“The last time that we increased that fee was when (State Senator) Carol Alvarado was a councilmember back in 2007.” Kelly said. He noted that HB 1526, as originally worded, would have reduced that fee to $7. “We were able to really push, and with repeated testimony, to be able to get that back. We completely exempted single family housing from it. But still, I just don’t understand why people would want to reduce the money that’s there for parks.”
Then there’s SB 577, which has passed the Senate and is now in the House. SB 577 primarily deals with food safety regulated by local health departments, but it also covers sound ordinances – that is, regulations dealing with noise pollution.
Kelly pointed to Houston’s sound ordinance as the product of two years’ work by Councilmembers Sally Alcorn and Abbie Kamin. The ordinance is enforceable by the Houston Police Department. SB 577 would nullify it.
“It makes no sense to me why the state of Texas would want to say, ‘We have a one-size-fits-all sound ordinance for the state,’ when we’re the largest American city without zoning,” Kelly said. “(Noise pollution) should absolutely be something that you can call your councilmember on if you have a problem, because Council meets every week. It shouldn’t be something that you have to call your state rep or state senator on, who meet once every two years. That’s not protecting the quality of life.”