John Muns has lived in Plano since 1970, when it was a sleepy hamlet of 18,000. By 2021, when he was elected mayor, the Dallas suburb’s population had exploded to nearly 300,000, making it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Just this year, Plano was ranked among the five safest big municipalities in America and the ten best in which to find a job, as well as the 25 best small- to midsize towns to live in. Its quality of life and business-friendly policies have enticed some of the world’s largest corporations—including Frito-Lay, J. C. Penney, and Toyota—to build their North American headquarters here. Many are clustered along the aptly named Headquarters Drive, which winds through a bucolic landscape punctuated by glass-and-steel office towers. Perhaps no place offers a better example of the system of low taxes, light regulation, and small government that Republicans credit for making the state an economic dynamo

But Muns, a lifelong Republican, says Plano’s success is now threatened by an unlikely foe: the GOP-controlled Texas Legislature. In late spring both chambers passed House Bill 2127, known as the Death Star bill because of its destructive potential. On August 30, two days before it became law, a Travis County district court judge ruled that it violated the Texas constitution. The state is appealing the decision. While the law remains in effect during the appeal, it likely cannot be enforced until a final judgment is reached. 

The new statute grants state lawmakers, for the first time in Texas history, exclusive authority over any activities covered by eight state codes: agriculture, business and commerce, finance, insurance, labor, natural resources, occupations, and property. With few exceptions, cities and counties will lose the ability to pass ordinances related to these “fields of regulation.” The law, which represents a major escalation in the state’s war on local control, has sparked outrage from city officials across the political spectrum. Plano and other Republican-led towns have become collateral damage in the GOP’s campaign against Democrat-run cities such as Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. (In Texas, municipal elections are officially nonpartisan—candidates don’t run as Republicans or Democrats—but many mayors acknowledge their party affiliation.) 

“There’s this pattern of [the Legislature] creating solutions to problems that don’t exist,” Muns told me. We were sitting at a conference table in his Plano office, which is decorated with black and white photographs of the city and a model of a DART light-rail train. “Corporations are happy here. I have never heard anything with regard to the business community being concerned about the city restricting their ability to be successful.” With his square jaw, neatly combed silver hair, and navy-blue suit, Muns resembled the corporate executives with whom he spends much of his time. In April he made a ten-day trip to Japan and South Korea, in part to pitch Plano as a business destination. 

These days, though, Muns finds himself spending more and more of his time on HB 2127. He worries that if the law is declared constitutional, Plano won’t be able to enforce its existing regulations governing overgrown lots that are considered eyesores, short-term rentals that often disrupt quiet neighborhoods, corporate tax incentives, and countless other matters—the very ordinances that have helped make Plano such an attractive place in which to live and do business. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal or conservative, small or large,” he said. This law “is affecting all of us.” 

The measure’s supporters see it as an elegant way to curb what they consider regulatory overreach by cities. “We were starting to see a dangerous trend in regard to regulating small businesses pretty much to extinction,” said Annie Spilman, the former Texas director for the National Federation of Independent Business, an industry trade group that helped draft the law. Spilman cited ordinances passed by the Austin City Council that require private employers to provide sick leave and prevent them from asking job candidates about their criminal histories until late in the hiring process. (The sick leave ordinance was blocked by state courts before it could be enforced.) 

In July, shortly after Governor Greg Abbott signed HB 2127, Houston sued the state to stop the law from going into effect. (San Antonio and El Paso later joined the suit.) City attorneys argue that the law violates the Texas constitution’s “home rule” amendment, which was approved by voters in 1912 and gives cities with at least five thousand residents the power to pass any ordinance that does not conflict with state law. Although the state has the power to overturn a specific ordinance, the suit argues that it cannot, in a wholesale manner, legislate away a city’s ability to self-govern. The law “would effectively repeal Texas constitutional home rule, impermissibly expand the scope of state preemption of local law, and improperly shift the burden of disproving preemption to cities,” the suit reads. 

At first the law’s supporters could dismiss the legal challenge as the predictable reaction of three Democrat-controlled cities hell-bent on implementing their progressive agendas. But as municipal officials across the state began to understand the scope of HB 2127, opposition flared up in more conservative locales. In late August, Arlington, Denton, Plano, and Waco filed a letter in support of the lawsuit. “I don’t know of a mayor that’s not opposed to this,” Arlington mayor Jim Ross told me.

Over the past decade, as business lobbyists repeatedly blocked meaningful statewide regulation of matters such as pollution and workplace safety, elected officials in Texas cities have stepped into the void by passing bans on fracking, use of flimsy plastic shopping bags that often clog waterways, and removal of centuries-old trees. Abbott has long described such local initiatives as part of a sinister campaign to undermine Texas values. “Texas is being California-ized, and you may not even be noticing it,” he told the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation shortly before he took office, in 2015. 

The state’s political institutions have generally followed Abbott’s lead. The plastic-bag bans passed by multiple Texas cities were struck down by the Texas Supreme Court in 2018. All nine members of the court are Republicans, and most were initially appointed by Abbott or his Republican predecessor, Rick Perry. In recent months, the court has upheld new state laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender children and eliminating the Harris County position of elections administrator. Last year the Texas Transportation Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, blocked a voter-approved plan in San Antonio to redevelop a section of Broadway, a major artery that leads north from the urban center, by widening sidewalks, planting trees, and creating protected bike paths. 

Most Republican legislative leaders appear to share Abbott’s antipathy to cities. In 2019 then–House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, of Angleton, promised “the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.” “I hope next session is even worse,” responded Representative Dustin Burrows, from Lubbock. Four years later Burrows would sponsor HB 2127, which supporters pushed as a way to strangle local regulations in the cradle. 

“In the past they’ve done this individual ordinance by individual ordinance,” said Rod Bordelon, a senior fellow for regulatory affairs at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “[This session], instead of tackling them on a case-by-case basis, they took a broad perspective and established that the State of Texas has primary authority over matters of statewide regulation.” Burrows did not respond to an interview request for this story. The day the Travis County district judge ruled that the law he cosponsored was unconstitutional, Burrows tweeted that “the Texas Supreme Court will ultimately rule this law to be completely valid.” 

Opponents, led by the nonprofit Texas Municipal League, have called HB 2127 a massive power grab by the state that could hobble elected leaders of cities and counties across Texas. They point out that the eight codes targeted by the law encompass hundreds of statutes, governing matters that range from water management (natural resources code) to overgrown lots (agriculture code) to the regulation of low-stakes gambling rooms (occupations code). 

“This strips a significant amount of the local autonomy of our governing bodies, and it puts it in the state’s hands,” said David Leigh, the Republican mayor of Belton, a city of 23,000 midway between Austin and Waco. He worries about the future of even innocuous city ordinances such as one restricting door-to-door solicitation to the hours of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., which could run afoul of the law’s ban on regulation related to business and commerce. “I think our best forms of government typically are the local,” he said. “They’re the ones that provide safety and security through law enforcement and fire protection. They provide for quality of life, trees, parks, and sidewalks. And if people feel that [local government] has run amok, they can go vote the people out.” 

To address criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the Legislature added carve-outs to HB 2127 allowing cities to continue regulating animal management, massage parlors, payday lenders, and collective bargaining with city employees. Even with those exceptions, though, cities across the state may have to repeal thousands of ordinances. In August the Plano City Council voted to amend several right-of-way requirements for local subdivisions in anticipation of the new state law going into effect. “With 2127, we’re constantly having to look at whether we’re allowed to do those kinds of things,” Muns told me. 

Under the statute, any city resident, business, or industry trade group that argues it has been harmed by an unlawful local ordinance can sue the municipality in state court. If a court determines that the ordinance encroaches upon the Legislature’s exclusive regulatory authority, the judge can strike down the law and award legal fees to the plaintiff. Only if the court deems a lawsuit frivolous would the plaintiff have to pay the city’s legal fees. The mayors I spoke with worry that this provision will invite a blizzard of lawsuits from disgruntled citizens and business owners. Ross, the Arlington mayor, said some developers have already begun claiming exemptions from local environmental standards. 

College Station mayor John Nichols, a retired professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University who considers himself a political independent, said he shares the Legislature’s opposition to burdensome regulations but believes HB 2127 will cause more problems than it solves. “Using the court system to deal with legislative issues is a very inefficient way to run a city,” Nichols told me. “It ties up our people, and it costs us money that could be spent fixing potholes and taking care of routine business.” 

During the legislative session, mayors from across the state shared their concerns with their representatives in Austin—to little effect. “We talked to Burrows, we talked to the governor many times,” Muns said. “They assured us that this wasn’t as bad as it sounded and that it would get cleared up in the courts.” Ross also complained directly to Burrows. “His response was simply ‘I’ve talked to a lot of mayors about this, but I have enough votes to get this thing done,’ ” Ross recalled. “It was disheartening, to say the least.” Nichols traveled to Austin to lobby in person on the day of the vote but wasn’t able to change any minds. 

The law’s supporters say the mayors’ concerns are overblown and they will still be able to govern. They point out that the law requires plaintiffs to give cities three months’ notice before filing suit over an ordinance. “During that time, the city or county has the right to . . . repeal or amend that ordinance,” Spilman told me. “And if they feel like the ordinance does not violate the legislation, they can move forward [in court].” 

Perhaps most worrisome to local officials is the vagueness of HB 2127—a ten-page law that seems likely to turn municipal government on its head—and the uncertainty about how courts will interpret it. Down the hall from Muns’s office is Plano’s legal department, which has been working overtime in recent weeks to identify ordinances that may have to be repealed. The city may need to hire additional attorneys to handle the workload. The law “just makes it harder for us to have local control,” Muns told me. “It feels like every two years we have less and less control over our own cities.”

Micromanaging Cities: A Recent History

2014: Laredo bans single-use plastic bags, and Denton voters ban fracking inside city limits. 

2015: The Legislature overturns the Denton fracking ban with a law giving the state exclusive authority to regulate oil and gas.

2017: San Antonio voters approve a plan to redevelop Broadway by expanding sidewalks and bike paths. 

2018: The Texas Supreme Court strikes down Laredo’s ban on plastic bags. 

2019: The Legislature bans red-light cameras, limits the ability of cities to annex property, and requires voter approval before cities and counties can raise property tax revenue by more than 3.5 percent.

2020: In response to Black Lives Matter protests, the Austin City Council votes to reallocate a third of its police budget.

2021: The Legislature restricts the ability of large localities to cut funding to law enforcement.

2022: The Texas Transportation Commission blocks the Broadway redevelopment project in San Antonio. 

2023: House Bill 2127 grants the state exclusive authority to regulate any activity under the agriculture, business and commerce, finance, insurance, labor, natural resources, occupations, and property codes. 

This article appeared in the November 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Lege vs. Red Cities.” It originally published online on September 1, 2023, and has since been updated. Subscribe today.