Government

Despite Risk of Backlash, Texas Politicians Advance a ‘Bathroom Bill’ Like North Carolina’s

January 11, 2017

Ralph Barrera, Austin American-Statesman, AP Images
Texas is one of several states that have introduced legislation that would restrict transgender people's bathroom choices. Above, protesters demonstrated at a news conference where the bill was announced last week.
Given the boycotts, bad press, and legal headaches North Carolina’s bathroom bill caused that state, some Texans were taken aback when the state’s lieutenant governor declared that keeping transgender people who were born as men out of women’s bathrooms would be at the top of his legislative agenda.

"Martin Luther King said our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, said in announcing his support for Senate Bill 6.

The measure, which he and its author, State Sen. Lois W. Kolkhorst, also a Republican, have dubbed the "Texas Privacy Act" and others call the "Texas Bathroom Bill," obviously matters — a lot — to Mr. Patrick.

"Mark today as the day that Texas is drawing a line in the sand," Mr. Patrick later tweeted.

He said the bill is a response to federal guidelines that would require schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. Those guidelines are currently blocked by a court order, but the Obama administration has asked a federal appeals court to overturn that order.

The legislation Mr. Patrick is promoting would require transgender people to use restrooms in public schools, universities and government buildings that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate. It would also ban local governments from approving ordinances aimed at protecting transgender rights in public restrooms and changing rooms.

Texas is one of several states, including Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota and Virginia, with bathroom bills on the agenda.

Many political observers say the Texas bill has a good chance of passage in the Republican-dominated State Senate, but will likely run into roadblocks in the House of Representatives.

On Tuesday, its chances of passage there dimmed when another Republican lawmaker, the newly re-elected House speaker, Joe Straus, suggested that policing bathrooms wasn’t at the top of his priority list.

Mr. Straus encouraged House members to focus on policies that "invite economic activity" to Texas rather than "turn it away."

In a news release last week, the Texas Association of Business described the bill as "discriminatory and wholly unnecessary legislation that, if passed, could cost Texas as much as $8.5 billion in GDP and the loss of more than 185,000 jobs in the first year alone."

It noted that the bill is strikingly similar to the North Carolina law approved last year, which the Texas association said had cost that state hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic revenue.

The North Carolina law also prompted a lawsuit by the Obama administration. Lawmakers seeking to repeal the law failed to come to an agreement last month.

Critics have questioned why Texas would want to risk taking a similar economic and public-relations hit, especially at a time when high-profile sporting events will soon shine the spotlight on Texas.

The Super Bowl will be held in Houston on February 5, and in late March, Dallas will host the NCAA Women’s Final Four basketball championships.

Perhaps with such events in mind, the Texas bill includes a loophole that would allow private groups that rent public facilities for special events to set their own bathroom rules.. It is unclear whether that would be enough to make powerhouse entities like the National Collegiate Athletic Association comfortable.

Much of the backlash in North Carolina has involved lucrative entertainment and sporting events whose organizers have cited the law as a reason to move to other states.

In September, for instance, the NCAA announced that it was pulling seven previously scheduled championship games out of North Carolina "because of the cumulative actions taken by the state concerning civil-rights protections." Two days later, the Atlantic Coast Conference made a similar announcement.

A spokeswoman for the NCAA declined to comment on the Texas bill, but she forwarded an article that outlined the association’s concerns about the North Carolina bill.

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Mr. Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate, has accused detractors of fear-mongering. In a statement, he said the bill was a matter of "common decency, common sense and public safety" that "codifies what has been common practice in Texas and everywhere else forever — that men and women should use separate, designated bathrooms."

It would also, he has said, help protect women from sexual predators.

Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas at Austin, said bathroom assaults aren’t something he worries about on his campus.

"Preventing sexual assault is something we take very seriously," Mr. Fenves said in a statement to The Chronicle. "While we track reports of alleged assaults, to our knowledge we have never received a report corresponding to this being a problem in our bathrooms."

He said he planned to talk to lawmakers about the impact the law could have on faculty, staff, and student recruiting.

The University of Texas at Austin’s website lists about 30 unisex bathrooms across the campus. A spokeswoman for the system, Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, said the system did not believe those single-occupancy bathrooms would be affected.

She said the university system was still reviewing the legislation and was concerned that it might violate federal nondiscrimination laws.

Mr. Patrick announced the bill last week several days before the start of the legislative session amid a raucous protest from about a dozen people who consider the bill discriminatory.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.