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Joe Straus: Legislators need to be careful when it comes to "bathroom bill"

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus told the Texas Association of Business that the "bathroom bill," a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was not his most urgent concern for the 85th Legislative Session.

Rep. Joe Straus makes remarks after being being sworn in for his fifth term as speaker of the Texas House on Jan. 10, 2017.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Wednesday further brought the battle lines over the "bathroom bill" into focus, saying lawmakers should be "very careful" about doing anything that makes the state less economically competitive.

“There’s been a lot of work put into our state’s economic success," Straus said in a speech to the Texas Association of Business, which has vocally opposed the legislation. "We want to continue that success, and we want Texas to keep attracting the best and the brightest. One way to maintain our edge is to send the right signals about who we are."

The remarks amounted to Straus' most dour yet on Senate Bill 6, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on "biological sex." It also would pre-empt local ordinances that protect transgender individuals from discrimination in public accommodations. 

Straus has previously called the proposal, a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, not the "most urgent concern of mine."

On Wednesday, Straus emphasized that he was not speaking for all House members but expressing a personal view and reflecting the concerns of constituents in his San Antonio-based district.  The city is set to hold the Final Four in 2018, and Straus detailed all it has done to prepare for the college basketball event. 

"Many people where I come from get concerned about anything that can slow down our overall job-creating machine," Straus said. "They are also watching what happened in North Carolina, and they are not enthusiastic about getting that type of attention," Straus added, referring to the state that incurred controversy when its lawmakers pushed a similar bill.

While Patrick has been outspoken about the legislation, Gov. Greg Abbott has not commented on it since its release. Straus applied some pressure on Abbott to weigh in, saying his view could make a "big difference."

"If you are concerned — I know many of you are — now is the time to speak up," Straus told TAB members.

Speaking with reporters after his remarks, Straus was asked if he intended to "bottle up" the bill in the House. He only said he was hoping for a "big conversation" among members on the proposals as well as the thousands of others that get filed every session. He also told reporters he has had "very little" communication with Abbott and Patrick about the legislation, though he noted the session is just beginning. 

Straus' remarks at the Texas Association of Business conference came a day after it heard from a bathroom bill supporter, Attorney General Ken Paxton. He pitched Senate Bill 6 as narrowly focused and not affecting businesses, and he urged the crowd to consider parents' safety concerns.

Read more of our related coverage:

  • The so-called bathroom bill has drawn national attention to the Texas Legislature. But what would the proposed bill actually do? We've annotated the text to explain in plain English how the bill would impact communities across Texas.
  • State Rep. Matt Schaefer proposed a rule requiring people in the Capitol to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex during a House floor debate in the first week of the 2017 legislative session.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business 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 Dan Patrick Joe Straus Texas Legislature Texas Senate