AUSTIN — Austin made headlines earlier this year when it became the first Texas city to pass a mandated paid sick-leave policy for private employers, but within hours a state lawmaker vowed to kill it.

“I support employers providing paid sick leave for their employees, but it is not the role of government to mandate that employers do this,” state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, said at a press conference where he promised to file legislation to reverse the Austin ordinance. “They have clearly declared war on the private businesses which make our prosperity happen.

“It’s not about whether they’re taking on a state role,” Workman said. “It’s about whether they should be doing this at all.”

“Because it seems there could be many legal implications, this is a topic city attorneys and city councils would need to discuss,” said Ken Pfeifer, Aledo city administrator. 

Calls and emails to the city of Weatherford and surrounding towns were unreturned as of press time.

But while Workman said he just wanted to end intrusive regulation of private business, others say the effort is part of a war over use of state law to nullify cities’ authority, powered by powerful business interests, which in Texas has played out over local bans on hydraulic fracking and ride-hailing ordinances in recent years.

Texas, however, isn’t alone in the conflict between cities and state lawmakers — often conservatives who decry federal intervention in their business — who want to preempt local ordinances.

“State legislatures have gotten more aggressive in their use of preemption in recent years,” the National League of Cities reported earlier this year. “Explanations for this increase include lobbying efforts by special interests, spatial sorting of political preferences between urban and rural areas, and single-party dominance in most state governments.”

In “City Rights in an Era of Preemption: A State-by-State Analysis,” the NLC analyzed seven policy areas in which preemption is taking place around the U.S.: minimum wage; paid leave; anti-discrimination; ride sharing; home sharing; municipal broadband; and tax and expenditure limitations.

“Proponents of preemption argue that it equalizes laws across the state, preventing individuals and firms from navigating a patchwork of regulation,” according to the report. “Preemption creates a problem, though, because it means a loss of local control for cities.”

Seventeen states have passed laws to curb local sick-leave ordinances.

In a telephone interview, Workman said those who can’t enact “socialist” laws such as paid sick leave at the federal level are promoting such policies locally.

But Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, said state lawmakers are ignoring the idea that the best government is closest to the people who are affected: for example, the Fort Stockton cattle owners who wanted a ban on single-use plastic bags because the bags were getting into feeders and cows were choking on them.

Other Texas cities passed bag regulations, and “in every case there was a unique reason to do so,” Sandlin said.

Sandlin acknowledged that many cities are happy to have little or no business regulation, but said that “people vote with their feet,” moving to cities where they find more-congenial regulations.

“McDonald’s manages to open a store in thousands of cities, each with a different building code; they do okay,” Sandlin said. “TML is trying to say patchwork quilts are good.”

Meanwhile, nine states and Washington, D.C., require paid sick leave, according to the National Council of State Legislatures, with Maryland’s taking effect in February.

“New Jersey is going to be No. 10,” said Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work, a 27-state network that focuses on paid sick leave and paid family medical leave. “They will pass it, hopefully, on April 12, and the governor has said he’ll sign it.”

Workman said he has support in both the state House and Senate for a bill to overturn Austin’s ordinance, and he’s got his eye on some other local laws that may need attention: municipal limits on payday lenders for example.

“At some point,” Workman said, “I suspect the state will step in.”

John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI LLC’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jaustin@cnhi.com.

Weatherford Democrat reporter Maggie Fraser contributed to this report.

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