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Will Dallas Join Other Texas Cities in ‘Death Star’ Bill Lawsuit?

State lawmakers passed a bill preempting local control this year. Now cities and counties are weighing their options, and polling indicates GOP legislators may be overestimating the support for such laws.
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Sean McCabe

During the Texas Legislature’s regular session, lawmakers passed several laws that many feel have kneecapped cities and counties in their efforts to address local concerns. 

Those bills have been signed into law, and Houston and San Antonio have sued the state—in particular in response to House Bill 2127, the so-called “Death Star” bill that prohibits cities from crafting ordinances that are more strict than existing state law.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, was crafted ostensibly to streamline the amount of regulation businesses face. But cities and counties pointed out that by removing the ability to tailor policy to the specific needs of their area, the bill also created a scenario where the parameters of the bill will ultimately be decided by the courts.

“The bill strips the power of city residents and their local officials to make decisions they think are best for their communities and punts tough regulatory decisions to the courts,” the Texas Municipal League’s Monty Winn wrote of HB 2127’s Senate companion bill. Winn also predicted that cities would be flooded with litigation challenging ordinances.

“Basically, it’s the greatest transfer of power away from the public and into the hands of a few people in Austin that we’ve ever seen,” state Rep. John Bryant, who represents parts of East Dallas, said. “This handful of people that want to control our state do not want cities acting in their own interests. They do not want any city making policies that get in the way of their ideological and financial objectives.”

In Dallas, much has been made about an ordinance that requires water breaks for construction workers that will likely now clash with the new law. But other policies and ordinances could, too, including an ordinance banning the sale of animals at pet stores.

In addition, ordinances that address the city’s approach to affordable housing and the environment (such as the placement of concrete batch plants) could be impacted. Regulations requiring sexually-oriented businesses to close at midnight could also be in the crosshairs, as could a requirement that city contractors pay their employees a minimum of $15 an hour.

But will Dallas join the list of cities suing the state over the bill? Last week, two Dallas City Council members, Adam Bazaldua and Chad West, told the Dallas Morning News that while there had been no move by the city so far to join that suit, they would be supportive of it. “I absolutely think we should,” said West. “It’s a huge overreach when we on the local level are the ones who most understand what our constituents are demanding and what they want. There’s a reason it was called the ‘Death Star’ bill.”

Part of the hold up might be because the city still has not hired a new city attorney after Chris Caso retired in February. Tammy Palamino, who had served as Caso’s first assistant, is serving as interim city attorney. While Palamino did not respond to the News’ questions, Catherine Cuellar, Dallas’ communications, outreach, and marketing director, said the city continues “to review all our options.”

Polling statewide indicates that most Texans don’t support the law. A mid-July survey by the University of Texas/Texas Real Politics Project found that half of those surveyed felt the state ignored the needs of residents. The poll also indicated that 47 percent of those surveyed were happy with their local government, and another 24 percent weren’t unhappy or happy. (Thirty-six percent of respondents said the state government mostly addresses the needs of residents.)

And 60 percent opposed exactly what HB 2127 does, which is “reduce the power of cities and counties to pass laws or regulations in areas where state and local governments have traditionally shared authority.”

Jim Henson and Joshua Blank, who provided the analysis of the polling, said the responses “revealed no evidence of a groundswell of support” for the bill.  Even among Republican respondents, the bill had the lowest level of support from a list of priorities. The lukewarm support of the bill, the two said, “suggests that GOP elected officials may be overreaching in these efforts.”

It’s not certain that Dallas will join the fray filing suit against the state. But given the number of city measures that will run afoul of this new law, expect robust debate over it.

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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.
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