Amid threats of a special legislative session over the “bathroom bill,” the Texas House on Sunday took a last-minute vote and approved a proposal that would keep transgender students from using school bathrooms in line with their gender identity.
On a 91-59 vote, House members amended Senate Bill 2078 — which focuses on school districts’ “multihazard emergency operations plans” — to add language that would require K-12 schools to provide single-stall restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities to a student “who does not wish” to use facilities designated by “biological sex.”
It’s a measure that would override existing trans-inclusive policies at some school districts that allow transgender children to use the bathroom of their choice.
Heading into the final stretch of the legislative session, House members strayed from the broader proposals that have languished in their chamber and instead attached the school-specific language onto SB 2078, which pertains to the regulation of school districts’ emergency response plans in cases of natural disasters, active shooters and other “dangerous scenarios.”
The chamber's last-minute traction on the bathroom legislation follows Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s threat to insist the governor call a special session of the Legislature unless lawmakers passed such a bill — which he has pushed for all session long, citing privacy concerns — as well as property tax legislation (The House on Saturday advanced a less aggressive tax proposal than the Senate had in mind).
Until now, House leadership had been reluctant to act on bathroom-related legislation over concerns of economic fallout. House Speaker Joe Straus, who has said the bathroom legislation felt “manufactured and unnecessary,” bottled up Senate Bill 6, the “bathroom bill” from state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, by refusing to refer it to a committee — an early step in the legislative process.
SB 6 would have kept most transgender Texans from using bathrooms that match their gender identities by regulating bathroom use in government buildings and public schools based on “biological sex.” The measure would have also prohibited local governments from adopting or enforcing local bathroom regulations.
With SB 6 stalling in the House, HB 2899 by state Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, emerged as an alternative to the Senate’s proposal. But it did not advance out of a House committee ahead of a crucial deadline last week.
Both proposals drew support from religious leaders and social conservatives, but they immediately led to outcries from civil rights groups and local officials concerned about discrimination toward transgender Texans. Business groups, chambers of commerce, big investors, sports leagues and tourism groups campaigned against the measures out of fear of economic fallout and opposition to policies seen as discriminatory.
By focusing on schools, Republicans could presumably thwart some of those concerns by letting stand local nondiscrimination ordinances — some on the books for decades in the state’s biggest cities — that are meant to allow transgender residents to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
But the focus on schools could lead to serious repercussions for school children across the state who have obtained special accommodations at their schools when it comes to bathroom use. Some school districts in Texas allow transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity both through formal policies or on a case by case basis.
In issuing his ultimatum on Wednesday, Patrick said he wanted the House to move on SB 6 or attach the language from Simmons’ bill onto other legislation. Up until last week, some of the House’s most conservative members were still looking for vehicles onto which they could amend the Senate’s language.
But others turned to a compromise on regulating only school policies — a narrower measure than both of the original proposals for bathroom regulations.
Only the governor can actually call a special session, but Patrick warned he was willing to hold hostage a measure known as the “sunset safety net bill,” a must-pass measure to keep certain state agencies from shutting down. All state agencies must undergo periodic "sunset" reviews, but they’re often added to the safety net bill if lawmakers fail to reauthorize them in time.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who was largely silent on the issue throughout the legislative session, recently endorsed the bathroom legislation as a priority, but his office has insisted that he believes the legislation could be passed during the regular legislative session.
In moving key pieces of legislation, the House on Saturday worked to claim Patrick’s bargaining chip by amending a separate measure dealing with reporting requirements for state agencies to extend the lives of several agencies that could have been forced to shutter without a safety net bill. The House also made progress on the property tax measure and the budget conference committee announced they had a reached a deal on the state's 2018-19 budget, another must-pass.
That effectively left a vote on the bathroom legislation as the final sticking point in efforts to avoid a special session.
Even before lawmakers took up SB 2078, LGBT rights groups were already threatening legal action.
In a statement released ahead of the House vote, Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal said the LGBT legal advocacy group would “be on the case before the next school bell rings” if Texas lawmakers “forced discrimination into Texas law.”