Plano is a Texas success story. The affluent suburb of 300,000 residents northeast of Dallas is widely recognized as one of the most family-friendly towns in the country. Just this year, it was ranked among the top five safest cities in America, the ten best cities to find a job, and the 25 best small- to mid-size cities. The city’s quality of life and business-friendly policies have attracted some of the world’s largest corporations, including Frito-Lay, Keurig Dr Pepper, and Toyota. Perhaps no city offers a better example of the so-called “Texas Miracle”—the system of low taxes, light regulation, and small government that Republicans credit for making the state an economic dynamo.
But Plano mayor John Muns, a lifelong Republican, says the city’s success is now threatened by an unlikely source: the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature. In May, both chambers passed House Bill 2127, known to critics as the “Death Star” bill. The bill was scheduled to go into effect on September 1, but was blocked at the last minute by a Travis County district court judge, who ruled on Wednesday that it violated the Texas constitution. The state is appealing the ruling.
HB 2127 grants state lawmakers 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, municipalities will lose the ability to pass ordinances related to these eight so-called “fields of regulation.” The bill, which represents a major escalation in the state’s war on local control, has sparked outrage from municipal officials across the political spectrum. Plano and other conservative towns have become collateral damage in the state’s campaign against Democratic-run cities such as Houston and Dallas.
“We’ve been successful for decades, operating our city efficiently and properly,” Muns recently told me. “But we’re finding more and more issues that we can no longer really rule on.” The mayor worries that Plano won’t be able to enforce its existing regulations governing overgrown lots, short-term rentals, corporate tax incentives, or countless other matters—the very ordinances that have helped make Plano such an attractive place to live and do business. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal or conservative, small or large,” he said. “[HB 2127] is affecting all of us.”
The bill’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, Texas state director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, an industry trade group that helped draft the law. Spilman cited ordinances passed by the Austin City Council that prevent private employers from asking job candidates about their criminal histories until late in the hiring process, and require them to provide sick leave. (The sick leave ordinance was blocked by state courts before it could be implemented.)
In July, shortly after Abbott signed HB 2127 into law, Houston sued the state to stop the bill from going into effect. San Antonio and El Paso later joined the lawsuit. City attorneys argue that the law violates the Texas constitution’s “home rule” amendment, which was approved by Texas 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 ordinances, the lawsuit argues that it cannot legislate away a city’s ability to self-govern. “HB 2127 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 lawsuit reads.
At first, the bill’s supporters could dismiss the lawsuit as the predictable reaction of three Democratic-controlled cities hell-bent on implementing their progressive agendas. But as municipal officials across the state began to understand the scope of the law, opposition flared up in more conservative locales. In late August, Arlington, Denton, Plano, and Waco filed an amici curiae (“friends of the court”) brief 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, Texas cities have stepped into the void by passing bans on fracking, plastic bags, tree removal, and other nuisances. Governor Greg 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,” Abbott told the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation shortly before taking office in 2015.
Republican legislative leaders appear to share Abbott’s antipathy to cities. In 2019, then House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican from Angleton, promised to make the upcoming legislative session “the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.” Lubbock Republican state representative Dustin Burrows responded, “I hope next session is even worse.”
Four years later, Burrows would serve as House sponsor for 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 TPPF. “[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.” On Wednesday, Burrows, who did not respond to an interview request, criticized the Travis County judge’s decision to declare the HB 2127 unconstitutional, tweeting 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 municipalities across Texas. They point out that the eight codes targeted by the bill encompass hundreds of statutes, ranging from water management (natural resources code) to overgrown lots (agriculture code) to the regulation of game 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 mayor of Belton, a city of 23,000 people 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 most 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 local ordinances. Earlier this week, the Plano City Council voted to amend several right-of-way requirements for local subdivisions in anticipation of HB 2127 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 HB 2127, any city resident, business, or industry trade group that believes they have been harmed by an improper local ordinance can sue the municipality in state court. If a judge determines that the ordinance encroaches upon the Legislature’s exclusive regulatory authority, it can strike down the law and award legal fees to the plaintiff. Only if a judge deems a lawsuit frivolous would the plaintiff have to pay the city’s legal fees. The mayors I spoke to worry that this provision will invite a blizzard of lawsuits from disgruntled citizens and business owners. Ross, the Arlington mayor, said that some developers have already begun claiming exemptions from local environmental standards under HB 2127.
College Station mayor John Nichols, a retired professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University, 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 convince a single Republican to vote against the bill.
The law’s supporters say the mayors’ concerns are overblown and that they will still be able to govern. They point out that the law requires plaintiffs to give cities ninety days’ notice before filing suit over an ordinance. “During that time, the city or county has the right to cure,” Spilman told me. “They have the right to repeal or amend that ordinance. 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 bill that seems likely to turn municipal government on its head—and the uncertainty around how courts will interpret it. “It just makes it harder for us to have local control,” Muns said. “It feels like every two years we have less and less control over our own cities.”