Bathroom bills in Texas reveal larger GOP tensions

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick addresses a packed press conference on transgender issues at the state GOP convention in Dallas, Texas on May 13, 2016. Photo by Bob Daemmrich

For decades, the Republican Party has been a mixture of business-minded, free-market capitalists and socially conservative, often Christian traditionalists. This unlikely marriage has survived and thrived in Texas because until recently, the two divisions have found little reason to clash with each other in the Legislature. This year, however, the infamous bathroom bill fight started to indicate growing strains in the GOP. If this keeps up, pro-business Republicans might soon find themselves forced out of the party.

House Speaker Joe Straus must have known the 85th Legislative Session wouldn’t be easy when social conservatives in the state Senate began introducing dozens of anti-LGBT bills as early as November 2016; one, Senate Bill 242, could out LGBT students attending public schools without their consent.

The real alarm bell sounded, though, when the business community caught word of anti-transgender bathroom bills such as Senate Bill 6 and House Bill 2899, prompting an aggressive response that warned of economic catastrophe. The Texas Association of Business estimated an $8.5 billion hit to the state economy, later rated as “mostly false” by PolitiFact Texas, while the Perryman Group projected a $3.3 billion annual loss to tourism, plus more than 35,600 lay-offs. North Carolina’s similar law mandated that citizens use public bathrooms corresponding with their biological sex at birth, had been estimated to cost that state $3.76 billion across a dozen years before their legislature repealed it. 

Despite the warnings, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his allies in the Senate designated the passage of a bathroom bill as a legislative priority, with the backing of Texas Values and other diehard anti-LGBT organizations. It was clear early on that this issue would become a point of conflict between the House and the Senate. SB 6, the original bathroom bill, passed the Senate but was never referred to a House committee for consideration; House Bill 2899, the House’s scaled-back version, never emerged from the House State Affairs panel.

Patrick threatened to force a special legislative session if a bathroom bill wasn’t passed. But when an amendment limited to public and charter school bathrooms was affixed in the House to Senate Bill 2078, an unrelated school safety bill, Patrick called the amendment too weak, and requested a conference committee. After months of dodging, Speaker Straus had to address the issue directly, and on the last Friday of the regular session, he called a news conference to rebut the offer for negotiations. He said the House “would go no further” to pass a bathroom bill. A few hours later, the lieutenant governor held his own news conference, backed by dozens of Senate Republicans, to criticize the Speaker and to reiterate his call for the governor to convene a special session for bathrooms.

With the regular session complete, Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to Patrick’s demand won’t just determine the fate of bathroom bills this year — it will serve as an indication of the future of Republican Party politics in Texas. Abbott has publicly announced his support for a bathroom bill, but calling a special session to advance the issue will clearly indicate his willingness as the most powerful and recognizable Republican in state government to rank social conservatism over pro-business policies.

Bathroom bills have never been about public safety concerns, despite claims to the contrary from supporters; more than 200 sexual assault survivor advocacy groups oppose them. Because the sole purpose of the legislation is to advance a far-right ideological agenda, Abbott’s response to Patrick’s demand could prove to be a turning point for the GOP. Abbott faces a lose-lose situation to either alienate the far right of the party or the fiscal conservatives. If the governor agrees to call a special session, the business community might just have to find another party.

Lincoln Dow

Political director, Texas Students United