Joe Straus: Transgender bathroom bill ‘isn’t the most urgent concern’

3:44 p.m Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 Texas News & Politics

With the next legislative session weeks away, House Speaker Joe Straus on Tuesday poured cold water on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s plan to prohibit transgender people from using the bathrooms of their choice.

“This isn’t the most urgent concern of mine,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said at a Texas Tribune event.

Noting that the NCAA basketball Final Four is scheduled to be played in San Antonio in 2018, Straus said he did not want Texas to follow the path of North Carolina, which saw businesses and organizations cancel events in the state after lawmakers there passed similar legislation and faced criticism for discriminating against transgender people.

“If it creates a situation like North Carolina went through, my enthusiasm would not be high for that,” he said.

However, Straus said that the House may take up the issue if enough members express a desire to do so.

Patrick, who leads the state Senate, has made the bathroom issue, which he calls “women’s privacy” legislation, one of his top priorities for the next session. Patrick believes that allowing people to use the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities, as opposed to the sex on their birth certificates, opens the door for predatory men to pretend to be transgender so they can enter women’s bathrooms.

“A majority of Texans in both political parties and in every ethnic and demographic group believe that women and girls should have privacy and safety in their restrooms, showers and locker rooms,” Patrick said in a statement announcing that it will be among his top 10 goals for next year. “Unfortunately, legislation is necessary to assure that they do.

Tension between the House and the Senate, which are both controlled by Republicans, is nothing new in Texas politics and promises to be the defining dynamic when lawmakers convene in January.

Patrick’s other priorities include banning so-called sanctuary cities that decline to participate in federal immigration enforcement, limiting local property tax increases and enacting school choice policies.

Straus has said he will focus on what he calls the core role of state government, with five priorities: the protection of Texas children at risk of abuse and neglect; reforming school finance; fixing the mental health system; securing online data and networks; and promoting entrepreneurship in Texas.

With low oil and gas prices cutting into state revenue and growing needs for a booming population, negotiating the next budget, he said, will be “our most difficult task,” and passing new tax cuts will be an uphill battle.

“This state is growing twice as fast as the rest of the country, it continues to, and the revenue isn’t keeping up with that growth,” he said. “We like tax relief in the Texas House and we do it where we can. I don’t know whether we can next time.”

Straus’ ideas for reforming the way schools are funded — including revamping or eliminating a provision that redistributes money from districts with high property valuations — will run into opposition in the Senate.

Patrick has been less eager to overhaul education funding and suggested that doing so would require Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session of the Legislature.

The state Supreme Court in May ruled that the school funding system was flawed but declined to rule it unconstitutional. On Tuesday, Straus said the decision will make it more difficult for lawmakers to come together on a solution next session.

Another cleavage between Patrick and Straus is the issue of school choice. Patrick is an ardent support of vouchers, which can give families money to pay for private school tuition. Straus said Tuesday that he supports policies that provide parents with options, like charter schools, but opposes using taxpayer money for private schools without oversight.

“School choice is very popular across the board if you’re talking about school choice within a district,” he said. “If the focus of the session becomes on vouchers, then there could be some trouble in the House.”

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