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Houston Sues State of Texas Over “Death Star” Law Minimizing Local Governments

The law regulates localities on a myriad of issues, from rules on construction to how cities can respond to disasters.

City Hall is pictured in Houston, Texas.

The city of Houston is suing the state of Texas over a new law that severely restricts the kinds of ordinances and regulations that can be enacted by municipalities.

House Bill 2127 became law last month after it was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). It is often described as the “Death Star” law by its critics, who use the term — based on a fictional space station from the Star Wars franchise that can destroy planets — to explain the immensely negative impact the state is having on local governments.

The law forbids cities and counties from regulating eight arenas beyond what the state legislates without first getting approval from the state to do so. It is set to go into effect on September 1.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County state court, alleges that the law violates a portion of the state constitution that allows cities and counties to self-govern.

“For more than 100 years, Texas constitutional home rule cities, such as Plaintiff Houston, have derived their authority to govern themselves and to regulate their residents, local businesses, and affairs from the Texas Constitution and the people of Texas themselves, not the Texas Legislature,” the lawsuit asserts.

In discussing the suit, Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel condemned the law for denying localities the ability to manage their own municipal codes, including when it comes to emergencies.

The new law “robs the City of Houston of the ability to act quickly when it needs to, particularly in times of disasters or to prevent disasters,” Michel said. “Certain things that we would do, for example, in the areas of drainage or flood control may be preempted and we may be challenged, and there may be people who suffer because we are not able to do what the Texas Constitution allows us to do, which is (for) local government to act quickly to address the needs of its residents.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turn agreed that the law allows the state government to reach too far into local government affairs.

Said Turner:

It is no secret the Legislature for years has been eating away at local control and governance. But House Bill 2127 has gone way out of bounds. It is extreme, and I don’t think that is an overstatement.

Regulations currently in place at the city or country levels — and those being considered by municipalities throughout the state — will likely be challenged or blocked because of the law. Such regulations include those governing how construction companies can function in certain places — for example, an ordinance in Harris County that requires construction companies to keep records on safety, which allows the county to bar unsafe companies from engaging in certain projects, will likely be found in violation of the law, if it’s allowed to be implemented.

An ordinance in Dallas that requires a 10-minute break in the shade every four hours for construction workers who are out in the sun all day would also likely face challenges due to the law. Removing that ordinance would be extremely dangerous, as it comes at a time when heat-related deaths at work are expected to increase due to the climate crisis.

Other regulations that could be discounted due to the law include rules for payday loan lenders that go beyond state standards, as well as workers’ rights protections and paid family medical leave ordinances. The law could also affect minimum wage standards that exceed the state’s minimum of $7.25 per hour.

“This is a big bill intended to dismiss and remove protections from everyday working people,” said San Antonio councilwoman Teri Castillo in June.

The law’s language is ambiguous, giving municipalities the added burden of not knowing when some of their ordinances might be in violation of the statute.
“The uncertainty surrounding the validity of ordinances stifles Council’s ability to meet the community’s needs,” San Antonio city attorney Andy Segovia said in June.

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