Metro Weekly

Bathroom bill rears its head amid Texas political showdown

Conservatives target House Speaker in push to pass 20 right-wing bills, including an anti-transgender measure

Joe Straus – Photo: Facebook.

At this point, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) is the only obstacle preventing the Lone Star State from passing a North Carolina-style law that targets transgender people. So, of course, social conservatives are bringing out the long knives.

Just a week before the Texas Legislature starts a special 30-day session on July 18, the Republican Party of Bexar County, Straus’ home county, voted 36-28 in favor of a resolution calling on the GOP to replace Straus as House Speaker.

The resolution, approved on Monday evening, cites the “non-support” of the Republican Party of Texas platform as the rationale for Straus’ removal, reports the San Antonio Current. The local Republican chapter also voted to support Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda, comprised of 20 different bills he would like to see pass, including the anti-transgender “bathroom bill,” which Republicans describe as a “privacy act.”

The proposed legislation, passed by the Senate but blocked by the House in regular session, would restrict transgender Texans to using only those facilities that match their biological sex at birth, including public restrooms, school restrooms, and locker rooms.

The House offered its own version, which would have required schools to offer transgender students single-occupancy restrooms if they refused to use facilities designated for their assigned sex at birth. But Senate Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, assailed the legislation as insufficient.

Even though LGBTQ advocates aren’t wild about Straus, his removal would not only ensure passage of the “bathroom bill,” but could open the floodgates to a host of anti-LGBTQ legislation in future sessions. Texas Republicans have hinted at amending the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which mirrors the national RFRA law, to explicitly carve out exemptions for people who wish to refuse goods or services to LGBTQ people or others who don’t adhere to a specific set of conservative Christian beliefs.

At the same time that San Antonio Republicans were rejecting Straus’ leadership, some of the House’s more conservative members were stirring up opposition to the Speaker at a meeting of the Tarrant County Tea Party. 

According to a tweet from the Texas Tribune‘s Cassi Pollock, State Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington), raised the prospect of ousting Straus if they can get 76 of 95 GOP representatives to vote for his removal. At the beginning of this year’s session, Straus was elected Speaker by a unanimous, bipartisan 150-0 vote. According to Pollock, State Rep. Jonathan Strickland (R-Bedford), who was also in attendance, said that Straus “will never run unopposed again.”

Texas lawmakers ended their regular session at odds, with the Senate Republican caucus circling the wagons around Patrick, and the majority of House members from both parties supporting Straus, reports The Houston Chronicle. Besides the bathroom bill, the two chambers have clashed over bills placing more restrictions on access to abortion, property tax reform, limits on localities’ regulation of business, school choice for special-needs students, provisions that would make it easier to fire public school teachers at will, and a “sunset” measure that would keep state agencies regulating medical professionals operating.

Abbott, who was largely on the sidelines during the regular session, has voiced his complete support for all 20 bills currently being pushed by the Senate Republican caucus, thereby increasing the pressure on Straus to fold.

For his part, Straus has questioned the need for the Senate’s version of the bathroom bill, arguing that the House measure — pertaining only to school restrooms and offering alternative single-stall accommodations for  transgender students — was a compromise between the Senate Republicans and most Democrats, who want no restrictions at all.

“As far as I’m concerned, it was enough. We will go no further,” Straus said in a May 26 press conference.

Then, referencing the backlash that North Carolina experienced in the wake of the passage of HB 2, he added: “This is the right thing to do in order to protect our economy from billions of dollars in losses and more importantly to protect the safety of some very vulnerable young Texans.”

In a July 10 interview with The New Yorker, Straus went further, recounting that when he received the final text of the Senate version of the bathroom bill, he said: “I’m digusted by all this. Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”

A poll by the Texas Tribune found Texans fairly split on the issue of whether the bathroom bill is “important,” with 47% of respondents saying it isn’t, and 44% of respondents saying it is. That marks an increase of support from a similar February poll, the bulk of it coming from Republicans who have rallied around the bill as a litmus test.

Specifically, the poll found that 70% of Tea Party Republicans and 54% of non-Tea Party Republicans now say the bill’s passage is important. So long as Republicans remain in favor, it is increasingly more likely that lawmakers will overrule Straus and pass the bill at some point during the special session.

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com