Lege Lines: Bathroom Bill Steals Spotlight
"Texas Privacy Act" isn't about privacy – it's about transphobia
No more than two days of the 2017 legislative session had passed before discussion among lawmakers went straight to the toilet. On Wed., Jan. 11, while laying out standard House administrative rules, an otherwise uncontroversial debate, Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, tacked on a loaded amendment that would require those visiting the Capitol to use restrooms that align only with their "biological sex," on the grounds of supposed privacy. House Administration Committee Chair Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, swept in with a point of order, arguing the State Preservation Board – not the House – dictates Capitol policies. Geren's parliamentary move did the trick, and Schaefer eventually withdrew his amendment.
The early debate previewed the upcoming anti-transgender bathroom fight over Senate Bill 6, long championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and carried by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. The offensively titled "Texas Privacy Act" would relegate usage of facilities at public buildings, schools, and colleges to residents whose gender matches the sex listed on their birth certificate and undo local nondiscrimination protections. Of course, the bill isn't about privacy, but rather a lightly veiled transphobic measure meant to stigmatize transgender Texans, especially transwomen.
The premature day-two skirmish also served as a microcosm of the looming battle between moderate, fiscally conservative Republicans and their right-wing ideologue counterparts. For instance, Geren, an ally of moderate House Speaker Joe Straus, suffered attacks challenging his conservative record in the primary, while Schaefer ranks the fourth most conservative member of the House, according to a 2015 analysis out of Rice University. While the lower chamber fired the first shots in the war against LGBTQ rights, it's actually the House that's expected to play adults this session. The Senate, typically the more mature body in the Texas Lege, now stands as the ideologically driven chamber hungry for red meat.
On the same day that Schaefer offered his anti-LGBTQ amendment, "Texas Welcomes All," a new coalition of business leaders, stood outside the Capitol's south steps to remind lawmakers SB 6 would inflict "devastating" economic damage on the Texas economy. But living in his own version of reality, Patrick continues to reject the business-side arguments. During a public interview later that day, the right-wing leader defended SB 6 and, echoing his recent condemnation of "fake news," blamed journalists for spreading misinformation about the bill, saying opposition is only concentrated to "Anglo liberals, and many of them work in the media." (The local demagogue's media-bashing gave Texans our own diluted version of Donald Trump's chilling slapdown of the press that same week.)
While blaming reporters for spreading lies, Patrick erroneously claimed that despite North Carolina passing similar legislation, the state is economically thriving and the law had "no effect" on its fiscal health – a glaringly false assertion. The truth is that North Carolina lost an estimated nearly $400 million and thousands of jobs. And when confronted about the financial damage SB 6 would have on local businesses, Patrick shot the projection down as "totally bogus" and lacking data – again, a hollow rebuke. The conservative Texas Association of Business estimates the law would cost Texas an annual $8.5 billion GDP from travel and tourism and place 185,000 jobs at risk.
In addition to the obvious destruction SB 6 and other culture war bills could beget this session, the attention lawmakers are placing on discriminatory legislation obfuscates the consequential issues that lay before them, including school finance reform, improving mental health services, and most urgently, crafting solutions to fix the troubled foster care system, a crisis that led to the abuse and neglect of thousands of vulnerable children. State officials last week unveiled an initiative to convince church congregations to help find homes for the 16,000 foster kids in Texas custody, but a direct investment of the Legislative Budget Board's approved $150 million for the Department of Family and Protective Services (which oversees Child Protective Services) by lawmakers remains to be seen. And with a tighter budget outlook this biennium – $104.87 billion for the two-year budget period, a 2.7% drop from last session – legislators will need to do more with less.
So, the question lawmakers will have to answer this session is: Will they use the days and months ahead to work toward actual vital reforms, or allow ideology and base-pandering to flush the opportunity for meaningful progress down the drain?