Dan Patrick issues bathroom bill, property tax ultimatum to House

May 17, 2017
Deborah Cannon
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks Wednesday during a Capitol news conference to push for House passage of his legislative priorities.

Launching an unusually public and pointed exchange between the Legislature’s top two Republicans, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called reporters to the Capitol on Wednesday to issue an ultimatum to House Speaker Joe Straus.

Unless the House passes two of his priorities — limits on transgender-friendly bathroom policies and changes to the property tax system — Patrick said he would hold up a sunset bill needed to keep some state agencies operating, all but ensuring the need for a special session after the regular session ends May 29.

What’s more, Patrick said, if the House fails to pass either priority, he will press Gov. Greg Abbott to call as many special sessions as necessary to gain their approval.

“Whether we have a special session is now in the hands of the speaker,” said Patrick, who presides over the Senate.

Straus responded a few hours later, releasing a statement saying he was encouraged by some of what Patrick had to say, particularly his indication that the Senate would act on House priorities “such as mental health reforms, fixing the broken A-F rating system (for schools) and cybersecurity.”

But, Straus added, compromise works both ways.

“(Lt.) Gov. Patrick’s threat to force a special session unless he gets everything his way is regrettable, and I hope that he reconsiders. The best way to end this session is to reach consensus on as many issues as we can. Nobody is going to get everything they want,” he said.

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Rep. Chris Turner, head of the House Democratic Caucus, said it was time for the House to push back against Patrick.

“It’s just extraordinary,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “Less than two weeks to go in the session and the lieutenant governor would essentially throw a Donald Trump-style temper tantrum and threaten to blow up the session just to try to force passage of his unnecessary and harmful bathroom bill.”

Clash of priorities

Wednesday’s events cast a public light on a leadership spat that began simmering before the 2017 legislative session started in January.

With a bit of fanfare, Patrick launched an aggressively conservative agenda that proposed sweeping changes to social and fiscal policies.

Successes piled up early as the Senate passed 29 of the 30 bills Patrick designated as priorities — a headline-making barrage that included bills on transgender bathrooms, abortion regulations, “sanctuary” immigration policies, voter ID, a government spending cap and using tax money for private schooling.

Straus, a moderate business-side Republican, quietly steered a more basic course that focused on Child Protective Services, mental health treatment and school finance.

No issue captured the difference in leadership style and priorities more than transgender bathrooms.

Patrick argued that letting transgender people use bathrooms, locker rooms and changing rooms that conform to their gender identity was a violation of “common sense, common decency and public safety.” By mid-March, the Senate had approved Senate Bill 6, which required schools, universities and government buildings to limit the use of multistall bathrooms to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.

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Straus called the bathroom issue a manufactured problem that promised to inspire economy-sapping boycotts, and he followed through by declining to appoint SB 6 to a committee, dooming the measure.

A House committee also declined to vote on late-arising House Bill 2899, which would block cities and school districts from enacting or enforcing transgender-friendly restroom policies.

In the meantime, the transgender bathroom issue produced some of the most contentious fights this legislative session — fueling two all-night public hearings while drawing praise from social and religious conservatives and vigorous opposition from international corporations, leading state businesses, global investors, entertainers, professional sports leagues, tourism organizations, civil rights groups and gay rights activists.

The first crack in the stalemate came when Abbott backed passage of HB 2899 in April.

On Monday, Abbott followed up by saying he wanted lawmakers to pass a transgender bathroom bill this session.

A public spat

Patrick said he was inspired to take his disagreement with Straus public after the House speaker sent him a letter Monday, then released it to the media, on end-of-session issues.

The Straus letter asked Patrick for action on SB 310, a version of a House sunset bill that was killed by a calendar deadline. Patrick sensed an opportunity.

RELATED: Lawmakers fear agency closures at risk without special session

“It’s very late, but we can still get it out,” he told reporters Wednesday. “We have less than 48 hours, probably, to pass it to avoid the need for a special session. Before we move Senate Bill 310, I must see action by the House to pass several key bills.”

In addition to the transgender bathroom measure, Patrick said the House had to pass SB 2, a measure designed to limit property tax increases by cities and counties that many local officials have criticized as potentially harmful to public safety efforts.

“People are literally being taxed out of their homes and their businesses,” Patrick said.

The House is scheduled to vote Thursday on SB 2, leading to a probable conference committee to work out differences between the Senate and House.

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said the governor was grateful that the House planned to move forward on SB 2.

“The governor made clear (Monday) that property tax reform and maintaining privacy in restrooms and locker rooms are legislative priorities that must be passed, and he believes both items can be achieved before the end of the regular session,” Wittman said.