The Capitol debate over transgender bathroom policies began, unexpectedly, Wednesday as the 85th Legislature entered its second day.
A House vote on rules for the session, a typically wonkish affair, suddenly veered into bathrooms when state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, proposed an amendment requiring people to use House-controlled restrooms that correspond to their “biological sex.”
Bathroom policy was on other minds as well.
On the Capitol’s south steps, tourism officials and convention professionals faced news cameras to criticize a proposal banning transgender-friendly bathroom policies in public schools and government buildings, calling Senate Bill 6 discriminatory, unnecessary and potentially devastating to the state’s economy.
And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who made passage of SB 6 one of his top legislative priorities, vigorously defended the bill against attacks, dismissing fears of economic harm as “bogus” and insisting that it was a matter of public safety, not discrimination.
This 140-day session was supposed to be dominated by difficult budget decisions due to lower-than-expected revenue, but as Wednesday’s events showed, the transgender bathroom debate has taken on a life of its own.
In the House, Schaefer proposed amending the rules to require that House-controlled multioccupancy bathrooms be limited for use based upon biological sex “in view of every person’s fundamental interest in privacy while in a state of undress.”
It was an early bid to inject the socially conservative politics of the House’s tea party wing. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has said SB 6 is not a priority.
House Administration Committee Chairman Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, a Straus lieutenant, called a point of order, saying the Capitol bathrooms are managed by the State Preservation Board, meaning there are no bathrooms “under the jurisdiction of the House.”
Schaefer eventually withdrew his proposal, and the House moved on to a series of rule changes proposed by tea party-aligned legislators aimed at wresting power away from House leaders. Those measures were soundly defeated.
One of the few administrative changes the House did approve came from state Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat who proposed establishing a private space near the House floor for legislators, staff members and credentialed journalists to use for breast feeding or breast pumping.
Also Wednesday, officials with convention and visitors bureaus — including those in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Arlington — announced the formation of “Texas Welcomes All,” an effort to defeat “discriminatory” legislation such as SB 6 and other proposals, not yet filed, that would allow businesses, individuals and some government officials to refuse to serve same-sex couples based on religious objections.
“Any attempt to pass legislation that is designed to discriminate against our fellow citizens, under the guise of privacy or anything else, will result in a multibillion-dollar disaster for the state of Texas,” Phillip Jones, president of VisitDallas, said during the Capitol news conference.
A recent study by the Texas Association of Business, Jones said, quantified the potential hit on the Texas economy — up to $8.5 billion annually in lost tourism, boycotts and businesses that decline to move to Texas or expand operations in the state.
If SB 6 passes, Texas can expect to lose large and small conventions from associations and businesses that want to ensure all participants would be welcome, said Susan Robertson, executive vice president of the American Society of Association Executives.
“An unwelcoming environment created by a state makes meeting planners and their attendees also unwelcome,” Robertson said. “SB 6 is a bad bill. It’s also on the wrong side of history.”
Patrick dismissed concerns about economic fallout, saying estimates of potential losses have been exaggerated. The economy in North Carolina, where a similar bill became law, is booming, he said, adding that Houston, where the Super Bowl will be played Feb. 5, faced no economic repercussions after voters in 2015 overturned an anti-discrimination ordinance that included gay, lesbian and transgender protections.
“But let’s say there is some economic impact. Are we for sale? Are our values for sale? I don’t think so,” he told Evan Smith, chief executive of the Texas Tribune, during a Wednesday morning forum.
SB 6 also would void city and county ordinances that require bathroom policies that accommodate transgender people.
Patrick denied that the bill was discriminatory, saying it limits bathroom use to the sex listed on a current birth certificate — not the original birth certificate as North Carolina’s law stipulated.
“If you are a true transgender person and you go to the court and get your birth certificate changed, we’re not discriminating against you,” he said.