The Blocked "Death Star" Law Could Wipe Out Broad Areas of City Code

Austin Judge Maya Gamble ruled it's unconstitutional

Image via Getty Images

Texas Republicans once claimed to champion the concept of "local control" – the idea that local governments, like city councils and school boards, should possess as much policymaking authority as allowable under state law. But recent laws championed by the increasingly extreme center of the Texas GOP have proved that alleged support to be a farce.

The theory behind "local control" is that local elected officials are closer to their constituents and thus better positioned to create policy that suits the unique needs of their specific communities. But the concept is also codified in the Texas Constitution. Cities and counties were empowered to govern themselves through the home rule amendment to the state constitution, which was added in 1912.

“We’ll have to evaluate every proposed ordinance through the filter of this statute and I suspect a lot of regulated industries will be doing the same thing and looking for ways to argue that they’re no longer subject to our regulation.” – Mayor Kirk Watson

But then cities like Austin, Houston, and San Antonio – urban centers where large concentrations of liberal, often Democratic majorities live – began to pass budgets and enact policies that infuriated the real power centers in Texas: state-level Republicans funded by oil billionaires and other right-wing groups. Now, the primary political project for the Texas GOP, for at least a decade, has revolved around limiting the power of local government.

The past three legislative sessions in Texas have seen escalating attacks on local control that have amounted to one of the greatest transfers of power in the state's history – a transfer from the majorities of people who live in urban centers to the comparatively small number of legislators who rule the Texas Capitol. In 2019, Republicans passed a law constraining the ability for cities and counties to fund the inflating costs of resident services through property taxes. In 2021, they passed a law making it virtually impossible for cities to reduce police spending, even when doing so is the fiscally sound decision.

The state's most sweeping effort at undermining local power was set to take effect Sept. 1, but a court ruling from Travis County District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble has halted its implementation. House Bill 2127, authored by state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, is better known by the name given to it by the bill's opponents (and embraced by its supporters) – the "Death Star" law. You know, the weapon created by the fascistic villains in Star Wars, designed to decimate entire planets.

The exact effects of the law are yet to be known because of its broad approach to preempting a range of local codes that fall into eight policymaking categories:

• Labor
• Agriculture
• Finance
• Business and commerce
• Insurance
• Natural resource protections
• Occupational law
• Property law

It also adopts the "vigilante" litigation model Texas Republicans used to restrict abortions throughout the state before Roe fell. Plaintiffs would be able to file a lawsuit against a specific local ordinance, claiming it is in violation of the "Death Star" law, and attempt to overturn it in court.

In Austin, the city's Law Department has identified several local ordinances that could be threatened. Austin's historic ordinance mandating water breaks for construction workers, passed in 2010, is probably the most publicized, and it's likely to be the target of legal challenge. But other local measures in jeopardy include the city's Fair Chance Hiring Ordinance, which helps prevent employment discrimination against people with criminal convictions; regulations on predatory payday lenders; and nondiscrimination rules that exceed those required by federal law.

Mayor Kirk Watson, who will be tasked with shepherding City Council through crafting ordinances that can withstand a "Death Star" lawsuit, said in a statement that he expects the process to be "unavoidably messy" due to the statute's "vague and broad" language. "We'll have to evaluate every proposed ordinance through the filter of this statute," he said, "and I suspect a lot of regulated industries will be doing the same thing and looking for ways to argue that they're no longer subject to our regulation."

That vagueness factored into Judge Gamble's decision declaring the law unconstitutional. That followed an Aug. 30 hearing in the lawsuit filed by the City of Houston. Attorneys for cities in the case argued that the law – intended to preempt a raft of local ordinances regulating an array of industries – was too vague to be enforceable. The state, which served as defendant in the suit, is likely to appeal Gamble's ruling.

The Houston suit was filed in July, and shortly after, San Antonio and El Paso joined the suit; city officials in Denton, Plano, Waco, and Arlington have also filed amicus briefs in the case supporting the plaintiff claims. Austin did not formally join the suit, but following Gamble's ruling a spokesperson said the city was "pleased" with the court's decision. "The court clearly recognizes the challenges facing cities trying to comply with the 'Death Star' bill by ruling it unconstitutional," the spokesperson continued. "The city will continue to conduct business as normal as the litigation flows through the courts."

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