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Gov. Greg Abbott on proposed bathroom legislation: Wait and see

Gov. Greg Abbott is adopting a wait-and-see approach about anticipated legislation that would prohibit transgender people from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to the Convention of States gathering at the Texas Capitol on Dec. 6, 2016

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Gov. Greg Abbott is adopting a wait-and-see approach about anticipated legislation that would prohibit transgender people in Texas from using the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. 

"I have not seen any proposed legislation yet," a characteristically cautious Abbott told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol. "I think we are in a situation where there are more unknowns than there are knowns.”

Among those variables, Abbott said, is the legal challenge to President Barack Obama's guidelines directing public schools to accommodate transgender students. The incoming administration of GOP President-elect Donald Trump could bring an end to that dispute, which was an impetus for the push for a so-called "bathroom bill" in Texas.

While it was unclear whether Abbott viewed the issue as a priority, he nonetheless said it deserves attention. The concern that the bill would address, Abbott said, has "been expressed by many Texans," and he added that the issue is "something that needs to be looked at." 

While such legislation has not been released yet in Texas, business leaders have already lined up to voice their opposition, worried it could scare off investment in the same way a similar proposal did in North Carolina. Asked about those concerns, Abbott said his goal heading into this session is "ensuring the safety and security of the people of Texas." 

"This is an issue that should be determined with a full evaluation, all the information," Abbott said when pressed on the topic. "We are in the information-gathering stage right now."

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called such a bill a priority. House Speaker Joe Straus has downplayed the urgency of Texas lawmakers pursuing such a measure. 

Abbott spoke with reporters for roughly an hour Tuesday, largely about the upcoming session. He listed “four pillars” that will factor into his consideration of any legislation: freedom, economic opportunity, educational advancement, and safety and security.

Lawmakers are heading into the session with a tighter budget than usual, thanks in part to a downturn in oil markets. Abbott, however, did not appear alarmed by the fiscal picture, providing a one-sentence response when asked if the state has enough money: “The answer is yes.”

“What we all know is that every decade we’ve had some tight budgets and some flush budgets,” Abbott said. “What we know is that through every tight budget that we’ve had in the past, the sun has still risen after that session, and it’s not a miracle. It’s just life.”

Despite the tight budget, Abbott said he still wants lawmakers to pursue tax relief, one of his orders to them last session. His “first choice of tax cuts,” he added, would be the business franchise tax. “As much as I can get,” he replied when asked by how much he would like to see the tax trimmed. 

The fiscal picture will not be the only consideration for lawmakers as they descend on Austin in January for the legislative session. For the first time in eight years, the GOP-controlled Legislature will be meeting under a Republican president, Donald Trump, who has vowed to tackle a perennial issue for lawmakers: border security.

If Trump makes good on that promise, Abbott predicted it will allow Texas to “recalibrate” its role in border security, possibly freeing up state money for other uses. Abbott made clear, however, that Texas is “not going to abandon post” in the meantime.

On Trump’s signature proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, Abbott said he anticipates the Trump administration will do so in a targeted way.

“There are certain parts of the border where it’s more easy to build,” Abbott said, noting, for example, there are “serpentine regions of the Rio Grande where it would be extremely challenging to build a wall.” He also named Big Bend National Park as an area where a wall would not make sense.

Beyond border security, education issues are expected to factor prominently into the next session. House Speaker Joe Straus has emphasized the need to fix the state’s public school finance system, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has been more vocal about the need for private school choice legislation.

“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Abbott said when asked about balancing the two issues in the upcoming session. “I think both can be addressed, and they both should be addressed.”

Patrick failed in a push to bring private school choice programs to Texas last session, though he is prioritizing it again ahead of January. Abbott said the lieutenant governor and other school choice supporters will have his ear — and potentially his signature.

“I will be interested in school choice solutions that are offered up, and I will be interested in signing the most pro-school choice law that arrives on my desk,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s Q-and-A with reporters came hours after Trump named Rex Tillerson, CEO of Irving-based Exxon Mobil, his secretary of state and reports surfaced that Trump has picked former Gov. Rick Perry for energy secretary. Abbott said he was thrilled to see Texans in the administration but declined to weigh on the most contentious issue surrounding Tillerson: his close ties to Russia.

“I see headlines on that, and know nothing about that,” Abbott said. “I’m not going to engage in speculation about it.”

Abbott struck a similar note on recent reports that the CIA has concluded Russia interfered in the presidential election to boost Trump. While Abbott said intelligence reports about any country should be taken seriously, he said he has “no information whatsoever about what the reports are about the election or anything else, so I’m not going to comment on that.”

It was clear that the presidential election, which Trump won in an upset over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, had altered Abbott's thinking about the next four years in Texas government. In addition to potentially easing the cost to the state of securing the border, Abbott said a Trump White House could save Texas money by allowing states more flexibility in how they administer Medicaid.

On the campaign trail, Trump railed against trade deals, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, as bad for American workers, alarming some Texas Republicans who see such deals as key to the state's economy. Abbott, however, suggested he does not expect Trump to take any action on trade that negatively affects the Texas economy.

"Trump is a businessman who cares a lot about jobs, and he will work on actions and laws that promote economic development and create jobs," Abbott said. "And I think that if cross-border trade is diminished, it will harm our economy and harm our jobs, and being the good businessman that he is, I don't think that he will want to oversee policies that" do that.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Governor's Office Greg Abbott Texas Legislature