Gov. Abbott says he wants to sign a transgender bathroom bill

4:52 p.m Tuesday, April 18, 2017 Texas News & Politics
Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, pictured during a March committee meeting with Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, will unveil a House version of the transgender bathroom bill Wednesday.

No longer silent on an issue that has roiled the Legislature for months, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that he wants to work with the House and Senate to approve a transgender bathroom bill.

“I support the principles of both the Senate and House to protect privacy in bathrooms. We will work to get a bill to my desk,” Abbott said via Twitter.

Abbott’s statement of support came one day before a House committee was to begin debate on a new measure that would block cities, counties and school districts from enacting or enforcing transgender-friendly restroom policies.

House Bill 2899 by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, would nullify local anti-discrimination protections that regulate access to multiple-occupancy bathrooms, showers and changing rooms.

“It’s really targeted at making sure that a city or a political subdivision doesn’t set up a new protected class,” Simmons told the American-Statesman. “My opinion is those issues should be handled at the state level so it’s the same everywhere across the state.”

Abbott called Simmons’ bill “a thoughtful proposal to make sure our children maintain privacy in our school bathrooms and locker rooms.”

“I applaud the House and Senate for tackling an issue that is of growing concern to parents and communities across Texas who are now looking to the Legislature for solutions,” Abbott said in the statement.

Senate Bill 6

By targeting local anti-discrimination policies, such as Austin’s protections based on gender identity, Simmons’ bill takes a different approach than Senate Bill 6, which would require government buildings and public schools and universities to limit bathroom use to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.

SB 6, approved largely along party lines last month in the Senate, also would block cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt transgender-friendly restrooms.

But while SB 6 has yet to be referred to a House committee — the first step in the process — HB 2899 will have a public hearing Wednesday before the House State Affairs Committee.

The committee chairman, Rep. Byron Cook, has expressed reservations about SB 6, saying he saw no compelling need for the bill and questioning its potential impact on the state’s economy. On Tuesday, he said he scheduled HB 2899 for a hearing so House members and the public can gain a better understanding of the bill.

“What I’m trying to do is take the issue through a thoughtful committee process,” he said.

House Speaker Joe Straus has also questioned the need for legislation aimed at bathroom use by transgender people.

Broad opposition

Opponents of SB 6 are lining up against Simmons’ bill, saying it also would discriminate against transgender Texans.

“I would suggest that it’s worse than SB 6, which was limited to government buildings and schools, while this applies to everywhere in the state, all restroom facilities anywhere in the state,” said Chuck Smith with Equality Texas.

Smith said HB 2899’s ban on bathroom-related protections for what the legislation broadly calls “a class of persons” was one-sided and unfair.

“It says you cannot protect a class of people, but it would allow any of those jurisdictions to pass ordinances that would specifically discriminate against those people,” Smith said.

“Keep in mind that a number of Texas cities, including Austin, have had these nondiscrimination protections on the books for years without any problem at all,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network. “Stripping away these protections and barring cities from enacting any others is just as reckless and offensive as the Senate’s bill.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Simmons’ bill, like SB 6, was a potential “self-inflicted” wound that would damage the state’s reputation as open and welcoming.

“Bottom line: It’s still a wrong solution to a nonexistent problem,” Adler said.

The Texas Association of Business, one of the most vocal opponents of SB 6, also opposes Simmons’ bill.

Simmons said HB 2899 was intended “to protect privacy like it’s been done for the last 100 and something years.”

“If this is the big issue that some people say it is, then it needs to be handled at the state level. It needs to be passed by this body and the (Senate) and signed by the governor,” Simmons said.

As originally filed, HB 2899 would have voided any local ordinance that extended protection to classes of people not already protected under state law — such as protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The original bill was a little broader than we were intending,” Simmons said, adding that a new version — focusing on the effect nondiscrimination policies have on restroom use — will be formally unveiled at Wednesday’s committee hearing.

Texas Values, a leading supporter of SB 6, has been pressing House leaders to take action on the bill and had little to say about Simmons’ measure beyond a Facebook post that said its leaders “look forward to a productive House hearing.”

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