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MultiState's Local Policy Digest explores the top legislative developments from municipalities across the U.S.

Austin passes first paid sick leave ordinance in Texas state history.

Late Thursday night, after hearing from more than 200 public speakers, the Austin City Council voted to become the first city in Texas to require local employers to offer paid sick leave to their employees. Specifically, the ordinance requires that “all private sector employers . . . provide a minimum of one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours worked,” with the potential to earn up to 64 (or eight days) of paid sick leave per year. The only exemption will be for “micro-businesses,” which employ five or less employees, and will last until October of 2020.

Council Member Greg Casar, the author of the proposal, said that for him, the new law is a victory in the fight against inequality in Austin. While the majority of public speakers came out in support of the ordinance, many from the business community were there to voice an alternative view of what they saw as a detriment to small businesses. At one point, a speaker produced a list of over 200 local businesses who had signed their names in protest of the council's decision to take up an ordinance that didn't seem to consider the plight of business owners.

“In this form it doesn’t [work],” said Sharon Watkins, the owner of Chez Zee restaurant. “You should make it a better ordinance for the whole range of businesses in our community.”Austin's mayor, Steve Adler, assured those business leaders in attendance that the measure would not cause undue harm to the community. “Cities that have done this do not see the extent of impact people are anxious about,” he said. “I just don’t think the harm’s going to be what people anticipate.”

But many, including state lawmakers, are still not convinced. While the Texas Legislature is not in session this year, State Rep. Paul Workman has already said that he plans to introduce a bill in 2019 aimed at preempting local governments' authority to enact paid sick leave policies. Until then, Austin, as a home rule city, will enjoy the full authority over its new policy. Residents can expect the ordinance to take effect on October 1st.

A comedian's cigar sparks clean air debate in Elkhart, Indiana.

Ron “Tater Salad” White is generally known for his previous role as one-fourth of the Blue Collar Comedy Troupe. However, preceding a visit to the Indiana town of Elkhart, his penchant for smoking cigars during performances took center stage, sparking a discussion among city council memebers about the town's clean air ordinance. The ordinance prevents smoking in “any portion of buildings or enclosed facilities, whether publicly or privately owned that are open for public accommodation,” a designation that the host venue, the Lerner Theater, falls under. If found to have violated the ordinance, the theater could be fined as much as $1,000 for hosting White.

In early January, the city council proposed an ordinance to amend the city's clean air laws to allow White's performance to go on unencumbered. Specifically, the ordinance sought to allow performers who regularly use legal smoking materials as part of their act to do so while performing at the Lerner Theater. The city council passed the ordinance, but Elkhart Mayor Tim Neese vetoed it in late January.

Last week, the council announced that it would not attempt to override the mayor's veto, and that the ordinance would stand as currently enforced. "State law does not supersede our law, so that's what happened, you know. It was a vote that we kind of got twisted, but we are going to make it right. We are in favor of clean air,” said Councilman Brent Curry.

White's performance will go on as planned, though it isn't clear whether the comedian will abide by the town's smoking ban. The city has asked White not to smoke during the show, but Neese admits "we don't know what he's going to do at this point."

Kansas City, Missouri Council passes ban-the-box ordinance aimed at helping local job seekers with criminal history.

Earlier this month, the Kansas City Council passed an ordinance that would bar local employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after an in-person interview. Although Kansas City is not the first city to pass ban-the-box legislation, it drew considerable debate from supporters and opponents.

Among those who supported the measure was Councilman Jermaine Reed, who said that many city residents with conviction histories “continue to be stigmatized by old criminal records.” He argued that private-sector businesses ought to follow the city’s lead with regard to ban-the-box legislation. In 2013 the city council passed a ban-the-box ordinance that applied only to city employees.

However, other city council members voiced their concern over how the ordinance would affect business owners in the area. Specifically, Councilwoman Heather Hall opposed the ordinance due to its effect on local restaurant owners. Although Hall said she “believes in second chances,” she noted that restaurant workers with criminal backgrounds are currently barred from obtaining employee liquor permits, which they need to serve alcohol under city law. Hall argued that restaurant owners would waste time and money hiring and training workers, only to have city liquor officials reject employees' license applications.

The ordinance takes full effect on June 9. Penalties for violations include confiscation of business licenses, fines up to $500, and/or imprisonment up to 180 days depending on the frequency of violations.

As the deadline for license applications passes, Michigan localities are still responding sluggishly to new marijuana laws.

In December, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs began accepting applications for medical marijuana businesses, setting a February 15 deadline for submissions. In addition to completing a 48-page application, businesses have to be granted permission to operate by their resident city in the form of an authorization ordinance. But the response from towns and cities has been less than enthusiastic. As of last week, only 63 localities had passed such an ordinance and opted into the Medical Marijuana Facility License Act.

As a result, figures from January indicate that only 20 of the 600 applicants had been approved for a license. Andrew Brisbo, director of the state’s Bureau of Medical Marijuana, attributed the low numbers to applicants’ desire to gain municipal authorization before submitting their paperwork. “Many of the applicants are focusing on getting their municipal approval in before they submit an application to us,” said Brisbo.

However, with the application deadline for applications now passed, unlicensed growers will have to wait their turn. As for those who submitted an application but have yet to receive final state approval, newly passed emergency rules will allow them to operate so long as their application was received before the deadline. If, in the future, the applicant is denied a state license or has not been issued one by June 15, the applicant must cease all business operations or risk legal penalties.


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