The Texas House gave final approval Monday to a bill banning transgender-friendly bathrooms in the state’s public schools — a compromise effort that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said was too weak but state business leaders feared could still provoke an economic backlash.
Democrats, civil rights groups and gay rights groups were outraged, saying the ban singles out transgender students, an already vulnerable population, for additional bullying, ridicule and discrimination.
But House Speaker Joe Straus proclaimed victory, saying the compromise threaded the needle — limited enough to avoid economic boycotts but strong enough to divert Gov. Greg Abbott’s threat to call a special session on the transgender bathroom issue if the House failed to act.
“Members of the House wanted to act on this issue, and my philosophy as speaker has never been to force my will on the body,” Straus said. “Gov. Abbott has said he would demand action on this in a special session, and the House decided to dispose of the issue in this way.”
It didn’t take long for cold water to be thrown on Straus’ hopes.
Patrick, who had threatened to do what he could to force a special session if transgender bathroom prohibitions were not passed into law, declared himself unimpressed with the House effort.
“I also have concerns about its ambiguous language, which doesn’t appear to do much,” said Patrick, who presides over the Senate.
A Patrick-backed measure, which Straus torpedoed in the House, would have gone much farther — requiring transgender people to use the bathrooms that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificates in schools, universities and government buildings.
Patrick also indicated that he will be looking for ways to beef up transgender bathroom regulations, saying, “There is still time for the House and Senate to address these concerns — which are both priorities for Texas voters — in a meaningful way.”
Also Monday, officials with the Keep Texas Open for Business Coalition — which includes Apple, Intel, IBM and about 70 other corporations — said the House transgender bathroom ban was not business-friendly.
“We remain extremely concerned that the perception of the amendment could tarnish the stellar reputation of Texas being open for business,” Chris Wallace, president of Texas Association of Business, said on the coalition’s behalf.
“We have been clear that discriminatory legislation would have a chilling effect on economic development, make recruitment and retention more difficult, and stifle investment in Texas,” Wallace said.
The latest showdown over transgender bathrooms, which emerged as one of the hardest-fought issues of the 2017 legislative session, began Sunday night, when a House Republican proposed amending Senate Bill 2078, a measure devoted to school safety and emergency policies.
The amendment, by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, requires public schools and open-enrollment charter schools to limit bathroom and locker room use to each student’s “biological sex,” barring transgender students from using the facility of their gender identity.
Schools would have to provide single-occupancy bathrooms and changing rooms for transgender students, the amendment added.
The state attorney general would be responsible for enforcing the bathroom law by filing lawsuits seeking a court order or injunctions against schools or school districts that do not comply.
With voting almost exclusively along party lines, the amendment was added and the House gave initial approval to SB 2078.
‘Respectful and fair’
Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said Sunday that the House needlessly caved in to threats from Patrick.
“This amendment was more about using trans kids as a negotiating tool at a contentious point in the session than about making kids safer. It paints a target on the backs of already vulnerable children,” Israel said. “We are getting rolled by the Senate, and transgender children are a part of that bargain.”
Before taking a final vote on SB 2078 Monday, the House turning down one final Democratic amendment that would have allowed schools to opt out of the law.
“We talk about local control on this floor, but that goes far out the window when there are political points to be scored,” said Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, author of the proposed amendment. “This bill now hurts kids by exclusion and discrimination” in an environment where differences often lead to bullying.
Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, opposed the amendment, which failed.
“This is intended to be respectful and fair and protective for safety for each and every student in our public schools,” Bonnen said.
Approved 94-51 by the House on Monday, SB 2078 will return to the Senate, where the 20-11 Republican majority is inclined to embrace the transgender bathroom amendment.
How Patrick responds, however, will be the wild card as the action shifts to the Senate.