Texas Activists Fight Back Against GOP’s War On Local Democracy

TPM Illustration/Getty Images

Texas progressives have a shot at a major policy victory that would make life easier for many hundreds of thousands of working people. To stop them, state Republicans are set to try to roll back local democracy.

In February, Austin’s city council passed an ordinance requiring businesses to provide paid sick leave. Activists are poised to get similar measures on the November ballot in San Antonio and Dallas, via citizen-led initiatives.

But they’re are also girding for the next stage of the battle. If those measures pass, they expect the GOP-led state legislature, pressed by business interests, to file suit to block them after the fact. If that doesn’t work, Republicans are likely to pull out an even more potent weapon: preemption. That could expand the fight over paid sick days into a more elemental battle over the authority of local governments to set their own direction.

In recent years, in states from Wisconsin to Alabama, cities have passed progressive economic, environmental, and public health policies only to see GOP-controlled state government use preemption laws — laws that bar cities and counties from passing their own regulations — to wipe out those advances.

Texas, where progressive, racially diverse big cities are increasingly at odds with the conservative state government, has been a particular preemption hotspot. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) pledged upon taking office in 2015 to use preemption laws to “limit the ability of cities to California-ize the great state of Texas.” Since then, the state has passed laws forbidding cities and counties from creating sanctuary city protections, and regulating oil and gas drilling. The latter measure invalidated a 2014 ballot initiative, the product of a grassroots campaign, that banned fracking in the city of Denton.

“The state legislature has essentially declared war on local democracy in Texas,” Mark Pertschuk, director of progressive advocacy group Grassroots Change, which has tracked the preemption trend, told TPM in a phone interview. “Folks that want a higher minimum wage, benefits like paid sick days and family leave, they have the ability to put together a very good opposition to preemption and can do it in a non-partisan way.”

The proposal, which is identical across the three cities, would require employers to provide one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, with an annual cap of six or eight days depending on the size of the business. Advocates say it would prevent workers from having to show up sick out of fear of losing wages needed to cover basic expenses like rent or groceries—or of even losing their jobs outright. The policy would also allow parents to take time off to care for sick children.

Abbott has warned that the paid sick leave measures would be “crushing” for businesses, and said the state needs a uniform set of regulations to ensure predictability for the private sector.

By waging the campaign in three of Texas’s four biggest cities simultaneously, and using ballot initiatives to show that the policy has broad popular support, progressives aim to undermine GOP opposition. The goal is to drive voters to the polls both to support a measure that directly benefits them, and to change the composition of a legislature that seems intent on reining in the power of cities to govern themselves.

One challenge activists are confronting: Texas’ dismally low levels of voter registration and turnout. This lack of civic engagement helps explain why the state’s large blue cities have little history of using ballot initiatives to try to secure policy wins — they simply can’t expect enough supporters to show up.

“It just doesn’t happen that often,” Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, told TPM of the ballot process.

State Republicans who fear-monger about the imaginary threat of mass voter fraud will also pick over ballot initiative signatures with a fine-toothed comb, activists say.

“We know its going be a contentious issue,” Zenén Pérez of the Texas Civil Rights Project, one of the coalition of organizations coordinating on the sick leave effort, told TPM, “[S]tate officials are going to be looking at every single signature to see if there was any sort of fraud committed.”

Pérez said that the team in San Antonio gathered some 144,000 signatures — almost twice what they estimate they’ll need to get on the ballot per city regulations — with the expectation that a significant number may include unregistered voters whose names will be tossed out. Activists in Dallas have a June 11 deadline to submit their own signatures.

“We have a lot of problems with accurate registration rolls in the first place,”Pérez said, citing Texas’ onerous voter registration and ID requirements.

If the measures get enough valid signatures and then are approved by voters, sick leave supporters then will likely need to fight off the GOP’s preemption effort.

Already Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) has appeared to lay the groundwork, joining a lawsuit against Austin’s paid sick leave law brought by business groups. Paxton has argued that Texas law already bars cities and states from imposing economic regulations including paid sick days, and has accused Austin of trying to “usurp the authority of the state lawmakers chosen by Texas voters.”

The coalition behind the sick leave push explicitly chose to use the ballot initiative process in Dallas and San Antonio to bolster the campaign’s legitimacy, and demonstrate that the numbers are on their side. A recent study found that the lack of paid sick days affects some 4.3 million Texans — almost 40 percent of the state’s workforce.

Interference by the state will appear to be “much more a subversion of a democratic mandate than it would be if we passed it through council,” Alex Birnel, advocacy manager at MOVE San Antonio, a youth advocacy group involved in the effort, told TPM.

Birnel said that the coalition was also actively courting business groups and lawmakers from across the ideological spectrum “so that legal challenges, if they arise, look as politically and optically misguided as they are.”

Gordon Lafer, a labor expert with the Economic Policy Institute, told TPM that these sort of progressive economic initiatives “really drive voter turnout,” and that they have a decent chance of passing if they make the ballot.

But even if they fail or if a preemption bill comes on their heels, Lafer said, the effort exposes the bipartisan support behind common-sense workers’ rights measures that materially benefit hundreds of thousands at what most economists say is only a small cost to the businesses that employ them.

“It kind of opens up some fissures,” Lafer said. “It reveals some of those tensions between the donor class and the base.”

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