Ten years ago, the eighty-third Texas Legislature had a chance to prove it wasn’t hopelessly corrupted by even the sleaziest of industries. That year, lawmakers considered modest reforms to the payday loan industry, which uses a loophole in state law to avoid a constitutional prohibition on usury in order to charge small-dollar borrowers interest rates often greater than 500 percent. For years, religious charities, faith leaders, and working-class Texans had been complaining about how predatory lending was trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt. During long and emotional hearings, they begged lawmakers for relief. Legislators were treated to a litany of small tragedies—grandma taking out a $500 auto-title loan to pay for medicine only to find, months later, that her balance had somehow ballooned to thousands and the lender had sicced the repo man on her to seize the car she used once a week to drive to Bingo. Real Dickensian shit.

The feeble policy arguments in favor of the status quo were quickly engulfed by an unusually frank discussion about legislative corruption. When a bare-minimum reform bill came to the Senate floor for a vote, the author of the legislation, a powerful Republican senator from Dallas named John Carona, accused his GOP colleagues of being “shills” for the payday-loan industry. An army of lobbyists lurked “around every corner in this Capitol,” whispering in the ears of susceptible colleagues, he warned. Right that instant, he said, lobbyists were calling his peers on the floor to persuade them to tank the legislation. “If we don’t [pass] it this time, you won’t be able to regulate this industry two years from now,” Carona said. “This industry will be so much wealthier, so much more politically powerful, that you won’t be able to say no and you won’t be able to draw the line.” The GOP, he said, risked becoming “the party that is backed and bankrolled by payday lenders.”

His words proved to be prophetic. The proposed regulations failed spectacularly in 2013. The loan sharks won, and reformers all but gave up on making change through the Legislature. Instead, in the ensuing decade, they redoubled efforts to attack the problem at the local level. Today, 49 cities across Texas—including the six most populous ones, and also conservative towns such as College Station, Midland, and Waco—have passed ordinances that provide modest protections for payday and title borrowers. The ordinances don’t directly touch the core problem: virtually unlimited APRs. Instead of caps, most ordinances instead limit the size of the loans as well as the number of times the loan balance can be rolled over, amassing additional interest and fees.

That patchwork of local laws—enforced by beleaguered municipalities—is not ideal. But it’s the best that reformers could do. In an alternate universe, the Lege would be grateful that cities have begrudgingly taken on a role best-suited for the state. And yet at least five bills this session could undo the hard-fought ordinances, deeply frustrating faith leaders and advocates for fair lending.

It’s no secret that the GOP-controlled Legislature is waging an all-out assault on local control, the proud Texas tradition of the state government minding its own damn business when it comes to local affairs. Over recent sessions, lawmakers have chipped away at city governance bit by bit. They have overturned city bans on fracking within city limits, overrode safety measures for Uber and Lyft, and limited cities’ ability to decrease law enforcement budgets. But this session, so-called “super-preemption” legislation, which my colleague Michael Hardy recently wrote about, represents a major escalation. Instead of striking down specific ordinances, these bills propose to nullify a host of local rules—from mandatory water breaks for construction workers to barring felons from door-to-door sales—while forever blocking cities from regulating activities covered by whole swaths of Texas law, including codes of agriculture, labor, and natural resources.

Legislators promoting “super-preemption” say they have grown tired of playing “Whac-a-Mole” with progressive city policies each session. Instead, they want to clearly establish state supremacy. “Some of the same advocates that come to the Legislature with their agenda and are not able to get it through here in the state capital, have now gone to some of our cities, the more progressive cities, and had those adopted, and thereby implement their vision of Texas in a way that we’ve already rejected,” said state representative Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican who is carrying a super-preemption bill in the House that could upend payday loan regulations.

Proponents tend to focus on Fox News–friendly examples of leftist overreach. “I never thought we’d have to actually have a conversation about whether or not someone should be able to use a gas stove, but here we are nonetheless,” said Burrows, one of the most powerful members of the speaker’s team. (Burrows was referencing an outcry earlier this year after a Biden official suggested that the administration might ban new gas stoves. But no Texas city has proposed banning gas stoves, and the Biden administration quickly made clear earlier this year that it had no intention of such a prohibition.)

The focus on culture-war issues, real and imagined, distracts from the damage the proposals may cause longstanding city regulations on payday loans. Indeed, this session marks the most aggressive attacks on the ordinances yet. For example, state representative Cody Harris, a Palestine Republican, refiled legislation from 2021 that would strip cities of the ability to require licenses for various trades and businesses, including payday lending. It would also zap any local rules that come with licensing. But this session, his bill no longer specifically grandfathers the payday loan ordinances.

It’s difficult to trace a single bill to an industry, but the major payday lenders are certainly employing lots of muscle. Cottonwood Financial, a major lender better known as Cash Store, has hired not one but two former speakers of the Texas House to lobby this session—Dennis Bonnen and Gib Lewis. In 2022 alone, Cash Store CEO Trevor Ahlberg donated more than $460,000 to Texas elected officials, including $30,000 to the committee chairs in the House and Senate that are hearing payday lending–related bills this session.

In the Senate, Conroe Republican Brandon Creighton is carrying the companion to Burrows’ super-preemption bill while Senator Drew Springer, a Republican from Muenster, is proposing to wipe out local regulations that impede on “commercial activity,” with some exceptions for safety and “uniquely local concerns.” In the House, state representative Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican, is pushing legislation to make it easy for locally licensed businesses and tradespeople to sue cities for regulations that ​​have an “adverse economic impact.” Advocates for fair lending have described being overwhelmed by the number and novelty of the sweeping preemption ideas. But so far, it is the Burrows/Creighton bill that has attracted the most scrutiny.

At the March hearing on Burrows’ bill, he angrily complained that city leaders had exaggerated its impacts by fearmongering that it would strike down rules on fireworks, lawn maintenance, and pawn shops. But when asked if it would wipe out payday loan ordinances, he gave a squishy answer. “My understanding is the [ordinances] are likely already preempted under current provisions. You know, I’m not a legal expert on that.” (Burrows was not available for an interview.)

But advocates noted that Burrows didn’t really answer the question. “What Chairman Burrows didn’t say was that the payday and auto title lending ordinances would not be impacted by this bill,” said Tim Morstad, an advocate with AARP of Texas. “It is our position that they would be.”

Ann Baddour, a fair-lending advocate at Texas Appleseed, pointed out that the city payday ordinances have been upheld by several Texas courts. She questions why Burrows would include the Texas Finance Code in his bill when cities do little to nothing under that part of the law other than regulate small-dollar lending.

Burrows reassured skeptical lawmakers on the House committee that striking down local policies could spur the Legislature to act. “I think it encourages the Legislature to do a better job of regulating if we need to regulate industry.” Which is a pretty funny thing to say. The point of “super-preemption” is to deregulate and to rebuke policies the Lege and its patrons dislike. In the particular case of payday lending, the Lege has had at least nine prior sessions to address one of the most predatory payday-and-title-lending industries in the nation. After the 2013 debacle, legislators seemed to have struck a tacit deal with the cities: you keep the sharks at bay and we will leave you alone. Now there’s a new deal brewing: swim at your own risk.