State lawmakers pursuing multiple avenues in effort to strike down local paid sick leave ordinances

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By Alex Samuels, The Texas Tribune

Texas business leaders who helped draft legislation banning cities from implementing employment benefit ordinances now fear those measures might be imperiled after a bill they thought was a slam dunk became ensnared in a fight over protections for LGBTQ workers.

Business groups and several Republicans set the stage for the next local control fight last year after Austin tried to require companies to offer employees paid sick leave. City officials say the Legislature shouldn’t overturn such proposals because they’re beneficial for workers and public health, while members of the business community have argued that it’s not individual cities’ job to set private companies’ employment policies.

Pamela Bratton, the vice president of contract administration and compliance with the Meador Staffing Services, worried that without consistent, statewide labor laws, businesses would “slowly strangle themselves trying to meet the requirements of all the individual cities.”

“This is not just about the one small one-shop employer, but people who cross the city line,” she said. “Someone might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to move to Round Rock.’ Well good luck with that, because if you want to come to Austin you’re in trouble.”

But Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who authored Austin’s sick-leave ordinance, said the most important thing to him is ensuring people “get the sick days they deserve.”

“As long as the Legislature is in session, we don’t take anything for granted,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting tooth and nail in the legislative session to protect our constituents and the things they want from their local government.”

Austin’s ordinance is on hold after an appeals court said it was unconstitutional, but the city has said it isn’t giving up — pushing people like Bratton to advocate for legislation to upend the city’s ordinance and create a statewide framework before others follow in Austin’s footsteps.

Business groups met with lawmakers and stakeholders last fall to help write the bills that would take such action and even sat down with organizations advocating on behalf of LGBTQ Texans to add language to the bill explicitly saying it would not supersede local nondiscrimination ordinances, according to people familiar with the meetings.

With that language now axed from the upper chamber’s version of the legislation and a slate of advocacy groups raising alarm bells about the impact the bill could have on LGBTQ Texans, some business groups feel caught in the crossfire. They’re also concerned that Senate Bill 15, by Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, is so imperiled, it won’t make it out the door before lawmakers adjourn in May.

To be clear, the controversial change made to SB 15 hasn’t weakened business backing for the legislation, but it has some supporters looking for other ways to get the changes they originally sought to ensure they can bring home a win.

“We’re not giving up on the Senate bill,” said Annie Spilman, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “But it’s been clouded with a lot of rhetoric and politics, and unfortunately that bill has now been poisoned, so we just have to find other alternatives.”

Those alternatives, she said, could be the House version of the bill — which still has the language about local nondiscrimination ordinances intact — or a package of splintered legislation Creighton filed last week prohibiting cities from requiring private employers to offer benefits such as paid sick leave to their employees. One of the bills also bars cities from enacting restrictions on private employers’ ability to ask about an applicant’s criminal history.

“The Senator’s new bills are ‘single shot’ approaches to ensure Texas small businesses determine the benefits, the scheduling, and the sick leave policies they offer their employees,” Erin Daly Wilson, a spokeswoman for the senator, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously advanced all four bills Thursday night. They will now head to the full Senate for debate. But getting them to the governor’s desk in time might be a tall order: The Legislature is set to adjourn for the year in less than two months, and the original House version of the measure by state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, has yet to go before a committee.

“This bill has been languishing without a vote for six weeks,” said Adam Cahn, a service industry veteran who writes the Austin-based political blog Cahnman’s Musings. “Meanwhile, the authors are getting killed from all sides. This is the worst of all possible worlds.”

The four latest pieces of legislation Creighton filed last week appear to pluck language from the revised version of his now-controversial Senate bill. But LGBTQ advocates say the four new bills again fail to make note of the language originally agreed upon that explicitly protects local nondiscrimination ordinances already in place in six major Texas cities.

“It’s frustrating how this whole situation played out,” said Cathryn Oakley, a state legislative director and senior counsel for the Human Rights Campaign. “It seems the business community worked really hard to protect nondiscrimination ordinances, and it’s frustrating things have degenerated to the way that they have.”

Creighton, for his part, reiterated during Thursday’s committee hearing that he did not believe his newest bills would impact local nondiscrimination ordinances — and was committed to trying to set the record straight against anyone who said otherwise. Before the panel heard a slew of testimony on the legislation, which went late into Thursday evening, the senator said he was disappointed “many groups are fanning the flames with the sole intention of staying relevant.”

“You may hear these bills are predatory. You may hear that they give a blank check to discriminate,” he said when laying out his bills. “I will tell you now that is all false narrative.

“I’ll say it again: These bills don’t affect local nondiscrimination ordinances.”

Goldman did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the Tribune as to whether he wants his bill to get a hearing considering the controversy shrouding the Senate companion. He previously told The Dallas Morning News, however, he doesn’t plan to strip the nondiscrimination ordinance clause from his bill.

But, Spilman added, it’s a “major uphill battle” at this point to get anything passed that hasn’t been heard in committee or looks like it’s having trouble passing out of either chamber.

“This time in session is when things start kind of dividing and falling apart,” she said, “and unfortunately, that’s when we lose good policy.”

Reporting is provided as part of Community Impact Newspaper’s partnership with The Texas Tribune.

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