Texas House Speaker Joe Straus’ hand-picked committee released its delayed report on the future of the state’s economy Tuesday, and it’s a ringing condemnation of last session’s transgender bathroom bills as unneeded and dangerous to the state’s economy as well as to Austin’s bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.
The report’s release also was accompanied by a political bombshell from the committee’s chairman, state Rep. Byron Cook, who blamed Gov. Greg Abbott for much of the turmoil surrounding the bathroom fight, saying Abbott’s top aides had emphasized that the governor wanted the legislation to fail during the 2017 regular session.
Cook said he and business leaders were shocked when Abbott reversed himself by ordering the Legislature to pass a bill limiting transgender bathroom use during the July-August special session.
“I can tell you that in the regular session, they said they did not want this bill on the governor’s desk,” Cook, a Republican from Corsicana, told the American-Statesman. “Why that would’ve been added to the special session, I can’t speak to that.”
The committee’s 48-page report, originally due to be released in December, described Republican-led efforts to outlaw transgender-friendly bathroom policies as superfluous, needlessly divisive, a serious threat to the state’s economy and a monumental waste of time and effort during the short 140-day legislative session.
“By making this and other unnecessary social issues a priority, lawmakers were forced to divert their attention from critical topics like education, property taxes, the state’s budget and infrastructure,” the report said.
The report by the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness went a significant step further, saying that unless Texas leaders acknowledge that the bathroom bill was a mistake that will not be repeated in future legislative sessions, the state will lose out on Amazon’s second headquarters — and its $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs — as well as additional business opportunities.
Austin and Dallas are among 20 finalist cities for the Amazon campus.
The fight over transgender bathroom limits was led by social and religious conservatives in the Republican Party and was a top priority for Straus’ foil — Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate — before it was embraced by Abbott as one of 20 must-pass items for the special session.
Cook said the move was a surprise after Abbott’s top aides, meeting privately in Cook’s Capitol office, stated emphatically that the governor opposed the legislation.
“That was a loud and clear message” during the regular session, Cook said.
Abbott’s office did not respond to requests to address Cook’s statements.
Limiting transgender bathroom use remains must-pass legislation for groups such as Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council, and 90.2 percent of Republican voters in the March 6 primary agreed with a ballot proposition stating that Texas should limit bathroom and locker room use to “protect the privacy and safety of women and children.”
Limits on transgender-friendly bathroom policies were quickly and enthusiastically embraced last year by Patrick and Senate Republicans. Straus, a San Antonio Republican, criticized the effort as unnecessary and harmful, and Cook used his position as chairman of the State Affairs Committee to kill the legislation in what proved to be their final session of the Legislature. Both announced their retirements after the special session closed last summer.
Despite his lame-duck status, Straus formed the economic competitiveness committee in October, appointed four moderate Republicans and three Democrats, put Cook in charge and ordered the panel to identify barriers to continued economic success.
After holding two hearings with 42 invited witnesses — including chief executives, entrepreneurs, political leaders and educators — the committee’s report identified four looming threats: inadequate funding for public education; outdated roads and other infrastructure; a shortage of skilled workers; and “manufactured social issues.”
“It’s not the committee’s report so much that it is all these really talented people who came and testified. That’s what makes it so very compelling,” Cook said.
But Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, predicted that the committee’s report, based on the testimony of witnesses who were invited to testify, will have little influence.
“I think members of the House are generally going to ignore it, because they are going to see it for what it actually is – a sham,” said Rinaldi, a member of the Texas Freedom Caucus, a group of tea party Republicans who frequently opposed Straus, a moderate. “The committee was uninterested in hearing from a diversity of viewpoints. It’s basically a report that just reflects the desired outcome of the chair of the committee, Byron Cook.”
In addition, the report:
• Urged lawmakers to focus on low taxes, limited government and respecting local government control while avoiding distracting legislation that “is viewed by many as enabling discrimination.”
• Recommended funneling more money into community colleges and working more closely with businesses to create degree programs to ensure that the workforce is properly trained for available jobs.
• Identified clogged roads as a trouble spot, noting that despite large increases in road money in 2013 and 2015, the extra funds “will barely cover the cost of maintaining current congestion levels.” One suggestion was tapping the rainy day fund in a way similar to a voter-approved proposal in 2003 that used $2 billion to help capitalize almost $27 billion in water projects.
• Suggested prioritizing funding for public education, stepping into another hot-button debate — property tax relief.
As Abbott and Senate GOP leaders press to limit property taxes by requiring voter approval for local tax increases of 2 to 6 percent, depending on the proposal, the report said the Legislature was partly responsible for higher taxes because state spending on public education is down 16 percent since 2008, when adjusted for increases in population and inflation.
Because school districts are forced to make up the difference with higher property taxes, the report said, “the fastest and most effective way to reduce the property tax burden is for the state to pay more of the cost of public education.”