The city of Houston filed a lawsuit July 3 challenging the constitutionality of a new law in Texas that limits how cities and counties can govern themselves across a variety of government codes, including commerce and labor.

The overview

The law, set to go into effect Sept. 1, stems from House Bill 2127, authored by State Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, during the 2023 legislative session and passed on a largely party-line vote.

Houston leaders and labor groups were among those sounding alarms about the bill as it made its way through the Legislature. Concerns revolved around how the bill could kneecap cities by prohibiting them from passing new ordinances in response to changing or complex needs as well as fears the bill could leave cities vulnerable to litigation.

The details

HB 2127—also called the Texas Regulatory Consistency Act by its supporters and referred to as the "death star" bill by its opponents—prohibits cities and counties from adopting ordinances that go beyond what state law already allows in several key areas, and also allows "any person who has sustained an injury in fact, actual or threatened" from a violating ordinance to bring legal action against the city or county. The government codes affected include:
  • agriculture
  • business and commerce
  • finance
  • insurance
  • labor
  • local government
  • natural resources
  • occupation
  • property
The latest

Houston's lawsuit was filed in Travis County against the state of Texas, seeking to have HB 2127 declared unconstitutional an unenforceable based on arguments that the Texas Constitution was explicitly written to give cities the power to tailor their laws to address local concerns. A local law should only be preempted by state law in instances where the two laws cannot coexist, city officials said in a July 3 news release. The burden falls on those challenging a local law to prove that it cannot exist alongside state law, according to the release.

"Under HB 2127, preemption is given a new meaning and one that effectively repeals Texas constitutional home rule," officials wrote in the release. "Not only is preemption given a new meaning, this legislation disregards the hierarchy of Texas laws where a statute such as HB 2127 cannot repeal a constitutional provision. Our laws require a constitutional amendment election to effect a repeal."

Another perspective

Supporters of HB 2127 include the National Federation of Independent Business and the Texas Association of Builders. Backers of the bill said it will be vital to ensure more consistency for small-business owners as they try to navigate different labor laws in different cities. The existing system is unnecessarily burdensome, NFIB State Director Annie Spilman said.

"Uncertainty has been a hallmark of this economic environment," Spilman said in a June 13 statement after the bill was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott. "The Texas Regulatory Consistency Act provides immediate relief from the patchwork of regulations that threatens our job creators and our state’s vibrant economy."

A closer look

Houston officials referenced several ordinances that would be nixed under HB 2127, including its Pay Or Play Program, which requires contractors who work with the city to either provide health care benefits to their employees or contribute to a fund to help uninsured employees. Ordinances in Austin and Dallas that mandate water breaks for people who work outside would also be preempted.

What else?

For laws that are lost at the city level, the only course of action to have them reinstated would be for city officials and residents to lobby state lawmakers to pass versions of the law in future legislative sessions, which take place every two years.

What they're saying

"The Texas Constitution expressly champions the local control and innovation that has been key to the tremendous economic dynamism in cities like Houston," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a July 3 statement. "HB 2127 reverses over 100 years of Texas constitutional law without amending the Constitution. Because Texas has long had the means to preempt local laws that conflict with state law, HB 2127 is unnecessary, dismantling the ability to govern at the level closest to the people and therefore punishing all Texas residents."