Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

New Texas Law Limits How Cities Govern Themselves

The law goes into effect on Sept. 1 but it’s still unclear how officials will respond or how many local government laws will become illegal. Dallas has declined to say whether the city is preparing a lawsuit against the state.

an aerial view of a Dallas neighborhood
Dallas officials are worried about a new state law, the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act, expected to heavily restrict what cities and counties can regulate.
(Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
Dallas officials are worried about a new state law expected to heavily restrict what cities and counties can regulate. But nearly two months before the law goes into effect Sept. 1, city authorities won’t say how they’ll respond and it’s still unclear how many current Dallas rules will become illegal.

House Bill 2127 or the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act bans local municipalities from adopting or enforcing ordinances and rules that go further than what’s already allowed under state law. The act applies to state laws that cover agriculture, business and commerce, finance, insurance, labor, local government, natural resources, occupations, and property.

The new law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 14, requires cities to get permission from the Legislature if they want to enact rules that go beyond what the state allows in those areas. It also allows a person or group to sue a municipality if they feel they’ve been negatively impacted by a local rule that conflicts with state law.

“It’s an attack on home rule cities under the guise of trying to make regulations statewide consistent,” said Dallas council member Paul Ridley. “The problem is that cities like Dallas face many individual, situational, unique issues that have to have regulations customized for the needs of the local community. And this prevents us from doing that.”

Ridley said city officials have been talking with other cities about the new law, and he assumes taking legal action is among the options being considered to try and block it from taking effect. Houston officials launched the first legal challenge of the law by suing the state on Monday.

“I think we need to take some kind of action about this act,” said Ridley, who declined to say whether he supported Dallas being involved in suing the state. “This is a very ill-considered act that substitutes the day-to-day operation of municipalities under locally elected officials for bi-annual state oversight, which is just inappropriate, and we need to change it if we can.”

The Dallas Morning News reached out to the 15 members of the Dallas City Council, including Mayor Eric Johnson, as well as the city’s legislative director and interim city attorney. Only three of them agreed to comment when asked about the ramifications of the new law.

The four who did, Interim City Attorney Tammy Palomino, Ridley, and council members Tennell Atkins and Omar Narvaez, provided few specifics. Palomino sent a three-sentence statement through a city spokesperson. Narvaez and Atkins, who led the city’s legislative affairs committee until earlier this month, said the city is still trying to analyze all of the potential fallout.

“It’s not just a concern for me,” said Atkins, the council’s mayor pro tem. “It’s a concern for everyone when you have a law that’s not clear.”

Atkins declined to say whether the city is preparing a lawsuit or if he would support one to block the law from being implemented.

“We’re still looking at what this bill will do. We’re still looking at options,” Atkins said.

‘Direct Attack on Local Democracy’


The law’s backers view it as necessary to make regulations uniform across the state so businesses can more quickly expand, fostering more new jobs and boosting the state’s economy.

But the new law has also drawn concerns from officials in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin and other cities who argue it could be unconstitutional, say it isn’t clear enough on what specific local ordinances will now be preempted, and fear it will erase a variety of local rules meant to protect consumers, keep workers safe, conserve natural resources and other self-governing policies.

“The act is unclear, vague, and inconsistent with current preemption law in the state of Texas,” Palomino said in her statement provided to The News. “This act could limit the city’s ability to regulate the unique issues affecting our residents, and require our taxpayers to ultimately pay the litigation expenses associated with any lawsuits resulting from HB 2127.”

As city officials work through the impacts, advocates for workers rights are also bracing for the fallout.

“I think this is a direct attack on local democracy,” said Ana Gonzalez, deputy director of politics and policy at the Texas AFL-CIO. “City councils and county commissioner courts, those are the governments that are closest to the people and basically, the state is coming in and completely eliminating that.”

She said one of the local rules in danger is an ordinance in Dallas passed in 2015 that requires construction workers to get a 10-minute break every four hours to drink water. Austin has a similar safeguard that has been in place since 2010.

City officials have publicly opposed the bill before it was passed and warned lawmakers about the harm it could cause. Laura Morrison, a Dallas assistant city attorney, told state lawmakers during a House committee meeting that it would upend local regulations Texans rely on to protect their safety, property, community and environment.

“If this bill passes, Texans will find themselves suddenly deprived of the local protections they rely on, and state legislators, such as yourselves, would find themselves shouldering the responsibility of filling in the gaps created by this bill,” Morrison said during a March 15 hearing on the new law.

Atkins sent a letter to State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D- Dallas, in March listing more than 100 rules and policies in Dallas’ city code that would be affected.

It named Dallas rules regulating minimum wages, water conservation, sexually oriented businesses, equal opportunity employment, and anti-discrimination provisions among ordinances in danger. The list also included trash pickup regulations, fair housing rules, payday lending restrictions and a host of other ordinances ranging from bans on owning roosters in the city to insurance requirements for ambulances, tow services, valet parking, special events, dockless vehicles and streetlight pole banners.

Targeting Progressive Policies?


Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said the act is a clear effort by state legislators to target some of Texas’ cities that have passed progressive policies that are at odds with state government priorities.

“It reflects the fact that there is an increasing divide between the views of Texas state government, which is controlled in all respects by Republicans, and most of Texas’ largest cities, which are controlled by Democrats,” Wilson said. “This is the state government flexing its muscles and saying to localities ‘don’t get out over your skis here’ and don’t, in their view, jeopardize the economic prosperity that they believe conservative policies have been able to engender in Texas.”

State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R- Lubbock, who authored the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act, cited policies passed by Dallas, San Antonio and Austin as reasons for the bill during an April 18 hearing in the Texas House of Representatives.

Among the Dallas examples were an ordinance requiring private employers to provide paid sick leave benefits and a rule passed by the City Council last year requiring banks seeking to do business with Dallas to disclose data on their lending and investment practices in underserved communities. A federal judge blocked the city from enforcing the paid sick leave ordinance.

“We want small business owners creating new jobs and providing for their families,” Burrows said during the April hearing on the bill. “Not trying to navigate a byzantine array of local regulations that twist and turn every time they cross a city limit sign.”

Gonzalez said she believes that unless the new law is blocked, it will tie the hands of cities and counties from responding to the basic needs of their residents, in some cases because of the threat of being sued.

“It’s going to have a terrible impact on our communities and it’s just going to allow governing by lawsuits,” she said. “We’re going to have to go through the court process to figure out what is and isn’t allowed under this bill.”

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
TNS
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
Special Projects