An omnibus regulatory preemption bill in Texas—where versions are currently being considered in both the Senate and the House—would strip local governments of the ability to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.
Dubbed a “death star” bill by critics, the sweeping legislation would abolish local regulations on everything from workplace discrimination, minimum wage, heat-stress protections, and mandatory breaks to predatory payday and auto title lending, pest and disease control, children’s food programs, puppy mills, hazardous materials transport, and forest and wetlands management, to name just a few of the many protections it aims to undermine.
The bills are authored by state politicians with strong ties to industry groups, fossil fuels interests, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the right-wing corporate bill mill that has long fought against “onerous” government regulations that it considers antithetical to free market capitalism.
According to the Local Solutions Support Center, a preemption-tracking group, nearly 500 preemption bills have already been filed in 2023 state legislative sessions across the country.
Given their scope, the Texas bills have drawn major opposition from labor groups, faith leaders, city and county governments, environmental organizations, humane societies, and tenants rights organizations, among others.
As part of a Senate committee hearing, Ivonne Gonzales, a member of the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, submitted written testimony outlining critical worker protections adopted by local governments that would be eliminated with passage of the bill, including regulations to prevent heat illness, discrimination and harassment, and provisions for workers’ compensation.
“If the state doesn’t want to take care of its labor [force]—of us—at least allow our cities to do so,” Gonzales said.
Ned Muñoz, a representative of the Texas Association of Builders, attempted to counter concerns about municipal-level protections by citing federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Builders “know how strong OSHA is,” Muñoz said, and if any of them are not providing adequate worker protection against exposure to extreme heat or cold, “OSHA’s gonna decimate you.”
“So basically, there are already protections,” Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-18) chimed in.
Although federal regulations are meant to provide baseline protections, OSHA currently employs only 1,850 inspectors to monitor eight million worksites, meaning that each inspector is responsible for roughly 4,324 sites. In addition, since its establishment in 1971, OSHA has seen its budget routinely gutted by Republicans.
The preemption bills also provide for a private right of action, which effectively allows any business to sue a local entity or official over any local regulation it dislikes.
Since the Senate bill “barely attempts to define the fields allegedly preempted, cities will not know what laws to enforce,” notes Collyn Peddie, a Houston city attorney. “And more important, businesses will not know what laws to obey,” meaning the bill will be “absolutely terrible for Texas business.”
The number of lawsuits the bill would generate “could easily overwhelm the courts,” wrote Adrian Shelley in testimony from the nonprofit Public Citizen.
Open Hatred for Local Government
Both sponsors of the preemption bills have substantial ties to ALEC and have received campaign contributions from the industry groups most likely to benefit from lack of local regulations.
For decades, ALEC has played a central role in stripping local governments of power, starting with working to prevent local divestment from businesses operating in apartheid South Africa.
More recently, many of ALEC’s model bills have targeted local labor regulations such as wage and benefits mandates, living wage policies, and labor peace agreements. Others preempt local laws regulating pay-day lending, rent control, occupational licensing, pesticide control, agriculture, plastic bags, and mobile food vending.
ALEC advocates for preemption laws as an effective means of curbing “progressive politics” at the local level, as an article from 2015 posted to its website indicates. It accuses “big government activists” of “targeting local governments to create oppressive policies that could not survive at the state capitol.”
The House sponsor of the Texas bill is State Representative Dustin Burrows (R-83), who in a secretly recorded meeting in 2018, spoke on behalf of fellow right-wing lawmakers when he said, “We hate cities and counties.”
Burrows joined ALEC in 2018 and has served on its Tax and Fiscal Policy task force. That year, he signed an ALEC-sponsored letter chastising Airbnb for removing rental listings of properties in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where settlements are considered illegal under international law. ALEC has been instrumental in making pro-Israel policies a top priority of the Texas GOP.
According to Texas Ethics Commission filings, Burrows has received contributions from industry groups representing pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, realtors, and chemical manufacturers, as well as from Southwest Airlines and the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which regularly lobbies in favor of big business policies.
Senator Brandon Creighton (R-4), sponsor of the Senate bill, has also backed a spate of other right-wing bills in the current legislative session that tick off the boxes of national Republican priorities: targeting higher education by eliminating tenure at public colleges and universities, prohibiting diversity initiatives, promoting “curriculum transparency,” and using public money for private education.
Creighton is also sponsoring SB 986, which would prevent local governments from developing their own eviction policies. A host of advocacy groups oppose the legislation, including Disability Rights Texas, the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center, the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, the Texas Tenants’ Union, and Come Dream, Come Build, a Brownsville-based affordable housing developer.
Although he appeared at an ALEC conference as early as 2010, Creighton formally became a member in 2013 and has participated on its International Relations and Federalism task force. In 2018, he joined an ALEC-sponsored delegation to Israel and subsequently sponsored revised anti-boycott legislation that targets critics of Israel.
Creighton has received significant donations from corporate interest groups, including airlines, charter schools, the insurance industry, pharmaceutical manufacturers, the right-wing, oil-backed Defend Texas Liberty PAC, and major GOP donor Harlan Crow.
In late March, Senator Mayes Middleton (R-11), current president of Middleton Oil Company, became a co-author of the Senate bill. He is a board member of the fossil fuel-backed Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and as a former state representative, was chairman of the far-right Texas House Freedom Caucus and a member of ALEC’s Tax and Fiscal Policy task force.
Abbott’s War of Attrition Against Local Control
Texas has a long history of taking local action on issues like consumer and worker protections—a history that has been challenged by Republican Governor Greg Abbott, who has vowed to tear down local protections.
Texas was becoming “California-ized,” Abbott warned at the start of his term in 2015, with local bans on plastic bags, fracking, and tree-cutting threatening to erode “the Texas Model.”
The showdown over local ordinances started in the north Texas city of Denton, which in November 2014 voted to ban fracking (despite the campaign being outspent 10-to-1 by the oil and gas industry). The day after the vote, the Texas Oil and Gas Association joined with the state government to sue the city, and six months later, the governor shot back by signing a statewide bill that preempts any local action on a wide variety of drilling-related activities.
Since signing that legislation, Abbott has received over $29 million in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.
Other state preemption laws quickly followed—to prevent “sanctuary cities” (meant to protect undocumented residents from undue harassment from law enforcement), local bans on natural gas hookups, and mask mandates.
“I cast a vision where individual liberties are not bound by ‘city limits’ signs,” Abbott recently recalled of those initial efforts.
Whereas previous attempts at overriding local ordinances were “multiple rifle-shot approaches,” he predicted that this is the year in which a complete blanket ban will finally come to fruition.
Who Benefits from Preventing Local Action?
A constellation of fossil fuel-funded groups, corporate interests, and right-wing organizations are all aligned in support of the Texas preemption bills.
The TPPF—an organization that promotes “high-carbon lifestyles” and denies the climate emergency—has provided testimony in support of both the House and Senate bills. The organization also invited Burrows to explain his “liberty-minded legislation” on its YouTube channel.
Genevieve Collins, the Texas state director of Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and Samuel Sheetz, the group’s policy director, both registered in favor of the House bill. So did Jorge Martinez, director of coalitions at another Koch-backed group known as the Libre Initiative.
In its own testimony, Airlines for America—a trade association and lobbying group representing commercial airlines—was full-throated in its concerns over local ordinances that mandate minimum wages, sick leave, and health benefits. Airport service workers across the country have successfully been pushing for more worker-friendly local regulations, including mandatory labor peace agreements, which airlines fiercely oppose.
The state’s fossil fuel industry has also shown up in force, with the Texas Oil and Gas Association—the same group that sued Denton for banning fracking in 2015—the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, and others all advocating for the bill.
After an April 4 hearing, the Senate bill is now pending in committee, and that same day the House committee adopted a substitute bill. Both bills appear likely to move forward to consideration in their full chambers within months.