After facing unexpected friction in Texas’ Republican-dominated legislature, a pair of bills to override local rules mandating paid sick leave and standardize employment practices across the state passed the Senate on Thursday over the objections of LGBTQ advocates who have warned the bills could threaten local non-discrimination protections.
Since Austin passed an ordinance in February 2018 mandating that employers allow workers to accrue paid sick time, Republican state lawmakers have made clear that they hoped to override such local rules. The lawmakers have called the requirements anti-small business and fretted that they created a “patchwork of regulations” across the state.
The two bills, Senate Bills 2485 and 2487, passed in two party-line 18-12 votes, and now head to the House, where similar legislation on the issue has yet to move.
What seemed to be the consensus paid sick leave bill — which had been filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton in the Senate and Rep. Craig Goldman in the House and had earned the public blessing of the governor — drew ire and stalled after a Senate committee overhauled the measure and stripped out a provision that explicitly protected non-discrimination ordinances.
LGBTQ advocates had cautioned for months that any bill overriding local control over employment practices could threaten several Texas’ cities’ measures prohibiting discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
While that bill passed out of committee a month ago, it never made it to the floor. It had been, one business advocate said, “poisoned” after LGBTQ advocates and a coalition of business groups came out against it.
Last month, Creighton filed four narrower bills, each aimed at accomplishing a slice of the original measure’s goals. Two of those four bills passed Thursday; they would prevent local governments from mandating paid sick leave, as well as regulating certain benefits practices.
The two bills that have yet to come up would override local “ban the box” provisions that prevent employers from asking potential employees about their criminal history in the early stages of the hiring process and ensure that certain employment scheduling practices are regulated statewide. Both bills are expected to come to the Senate floor early next week.
LGBTQ advocates have sounded the alarm even about the splintered versions of Creighton’s new, narrower employment practices bills, arguing they could still threaten cities’ non-discrimination ordinances. The city of Austin said the bills could undermine its non-discrimination ordinance, according to The Dallas Morning News, as have legal experts consulted by LGBTQ groups.
But Creighton has maintained that none of the bills would threaten non-discrimination provisions.
“I’ll say it again: These bills don’t affect local nondiscrimination ordinances,” Creighton said last week, laying the measures out before the Senate State Affairs Committee. Other legal opinions, including one from an attorney with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, claim the ordinances wouldn’t threaten those protections.
During a heated floor debate, several Democrats asked Creighton why the state should take away cities’ ability to regulate the businesses in their jurisdictions and raised concerns that pre-empting local regulations could threaten LGBTQ communities.
Creighton responded that it was “not my intent” — nor would it be the bill’s impact — to threaten local non-discrimination ordinances.
“If that’s truly your intent, it would be pretty easy to put that in there and make sure that your intent is actually captured in the law,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “If you want to be clear, you should put the non-discrimination language back in here… You refuse to do that, and that’s part of the problem.”
“The courts have made it clear: It’s not enough, no matter how well-intentioned you are, to stand on the floor of the Senate and say, ‘That is my intent.’ The courts will look at the words in your statute,” Watson added.
“In the original SB 15 legislation, that policy was written very broadly,” Creighton said. “At that time, it did have [non-discrimination ordinance] language. These single-shot bills are very narrow in scope.”
At one point, during a heated exchange between Creighton and Dallas Democrat Royce West, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had to step in to keep the senators from talking over each other.
“Members, members,” Patrick intervened. “Who had the floor last?”
The tension did not die down as senators turned to amend the bills and ultimately voted on them.
Watson proposed an amendment to one of Creighton’s bills that would have revived, verbatim, the protections for local non-discrimination ordinances that were present in Creighton’s original bill.
“Members, I would ask that you keep the bill in its current form,” Creighton said. “It’s very clear that non-discrimination language is not needed.”
Watson’s amendment failed.