One of the the biggest priorities for Texas Republicans this session appears to be on the verge of legislative death. A series of bills that would broadly prohibit local governments from regulating employee benefits in the private sector died quietly in the House this week.
The business lobby has long been used to getting what it wants from the Republican-controlled Legislature, but now it’s waving the white flag. “It is dead. … The discussion got completely derailed,” lamented Annie Spilman, lobbyist for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, in an interview with the Observer. The group is one of the lead advocates for the preemption bills. “They really haven’t left us with any hope at all.”
Senate Bill 15 started as a straightforward measure to stomp out a broad swath of emerging local labor policies, like mandatory paid sick leave, in cities including Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. But it ended in the political gutter after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick insisted on removing language that explicitly protected local nondiscrimination ordinances (NDOs) for LGBTQ Texans in several cities. Patrick’s move was reportedly made at the behest of Texas Values, the state’s leading social conservative pressure group.
With the high-profile failure of Patrick’s 2017 bathroom bill and now the fight over NDOs, Texas businesses are growing increasingly furious that the lieutenant governor appears unable to stop poisoning their political agenda with right-wing social warfare.
Spilman said she sees it as another example of Patrick putting the priorities of the religious right before businesses. “I don’t think the lieutenant governor has listened to the business community in quite a while,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority was this preemption legislation to stop cities from overreaching, and despite our efforts to compromise with everyone involved, at the end of the day we were ignored and set aside.”
The preemption effort was embattled almost from day one. Amid growing concern about the legislation’s potential to jeopardize local LGBTQ protections, Senator Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, splintered his original SB 15 bill into four piecemeal bills and got them all passed individually in the Senate. But the bills still did not explicitly carve out protections for NDOs, causing major employers like American Airlines and Facebook to come out in opposition.
On Friday, with legislative deadlines bearing down, the House state affairs committee eventually approved substitute versions that put the original NDO protection language back in the bills.
Committee Chairman Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, told the Texas Tribune that he was “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”
“It’s completely unacceptable … This is 2019,” he said.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen committed to bringing the legislation to a vote if it included the NDO language. “The reality is we’re not happy with cities passing these paid sick leave ordinances. It’s not fair and good for Texas business and Texas job growth, but we are also not going to allow discrimination to occur,” Bonnen told KXAN last week.
The House calendars committee finalized the House’s remaining floor agenda Sunday evening, meaning anything that wasn’t placed on the calendar is all but certain to be dead. The preemption bills were not on the list.
It’s suspected that part of the reason the bills died is that Patrick refused to consider any sort of NDO protection language in a compromise bill, according to conversations with multiple sources. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
“I think the lieutenant governor was holding a firm line against that,” state Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told the Observer. But Rodriguez also attributes the preemption bills’ procedural defeat to Democrats’ willingness to hold together. “One of the calculations was about is the juice worth the squeeze. What would happen on the floor? We Democrats were holding a firm line of opposition … and [willing to] do whatever to kill them.”
Creighton, the Republican author of the bills, told the Observer, “The only hope now is that the courts reverse these costly and burdensome regulations, and restore the predictability and common-sense policies Texas business needs to thrive.” Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance is on hold after it was ruled unconstitutional in November, a decision the city is appealing.
The National Federation of Independent Business is considering a more drastic route. Spilman said the group is considering asking Governor Greg Abbott to call an emergency session to take up preemption legislation in the near future. “It’s only going to get worse,” she said of cities passing labor ordinances.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Spilman describes pro-labor groups and their allied Democratic legislators as an ascendant force that must be stopped. “I think they’re winning in a red state. … They’re starting to take over the state, and they will.”
It’s an odd day in Texas when a powerful business group is warning that labor is becoming too powerful a force. But labor unions, wary of the potential for a last-minute amendment or some sort of underhanded maneuver, aren’t spiking the ball just yet. “I’m not confident until the gavel comes down for sine die,” Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy said.