Texans know a thing or two about the battle for local control. The state’s Republican leadership works to cancel city regulations they see as overly intrusive, while city officials say the state shouldn’t be able to meddle in local matters. And Austin, with its progressive city government, is often in the state officials’ crosshairs. Paid sick leave is the latest battleground between the state and Austin. On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed papers in support of a lawsuit against Austin that seeks to overturn the city’s recently-passed paid sick leave ordinance.
The sick leave policy is slated to go into effect on Oct. 1. It requires private employers to provide six to eight days of paid sick leave to their workers, depending on the size of the business.
The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, several businesses and the state are fighting the ordinance.
Lynne Rambo, professor of law at Texas A&M, says plaintiffs claim the ordinance is preempted by the state minimum wage law, which pegs the Texas minimum wage to the federal amount. Requiring sick leave, they say, creates a higher minimum wage than state law allows by requiring employees be paid when not at work due to illness.
Though Austin was the first Texas city to implement a paid sick leave ordinance, Dallas could follow suit. Because Austin and Dallas are home rule cities, the state must show there’s a conflict between the ordinances and the Texas minimum wage act.
“They’re using a really creative theory and yelling a lot about how the cities are preempted by the state law,” Rambo says. “But the burden is really on them to establish that they limited the cities by this law. And I think a court is going to have to decide that.”
Cities should have an advantage in court.
“The Supreme Court has made quite clear that the benefit of the doubt goes with the cities rather than with the state,” Rambo says.
There’s a degree of irony in the state’s history of retaliation against local laws. During current Gov. Greg Abbott’s time as state attorney general, he bragged about suing the federal government repetedly, fighting what he saw as burdensome, intrusive laws from a higher level of government.
“Here it is sort of reversed and the state is objecting to local control when it comes to municipalities doing what they want to do,” Rambo says.
For Rambo, the basic motivation for both sides is clear.
“People who have the power tend to want to hold the power to themselves,” Rambo says.
Written by Elizabeth Ucles.