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On "bathroom bill," Greg Abbott staying neutral as pressure builds

Two weeks after the high-profile legislation was unveiled in the Texas Senate, Gov. Greg Abbott maintained his largely neutral stance on the "bathroom bill" Thursday as pressure builds on him to weigh in.

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledges the crowd of business leaders and educators following his speech Sept. 19, 2016 to the Texas Education & Workforce Summit luncheon on campus.

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is maintaining his largely neutral stance on Texas' "bathroom bill" as pressure picks up on him to weigh in on the legislation.

"This is an alarming issue that is an obvious concern to a lot of Texans," Abbott told The Texas Tribune on Thursday night while attending the Latino Inaugural Gala, an event celebrating Friday's inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump. "I think it’s very important that legislators have the opportunity to listen to the concerns of their fellow Texans and consider the right remedies for those concerns.”

Abbott's remarks came a day after House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, delivered a speech in which he expressed apprehension about the legislation and said Abbott's opinion on it could make a "big difference." 

The legislation, Senate Bill 6, would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex” and would pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender Texans to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has called the bill one of his top priorities of the legislative session.

When he was asked about the bill before it was released, Abbott took a wait-and-see approach, calling it a legitimate issue but saying more information was needed on it. He indicated Thursday night his posture toward legislation has not changed much in the two weeks since Patrick unveiled it alongside state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the bill's lead author.

Pressed on the issue Thursday night, Abbott again emphasized that it is worthy of attention, especially after President Barack Obama created a "new paradigm" by issuing guidelines last year allowing for public schools to accommodate transgender students. 

"So you have parents of kids in schools who have legitimate concerns about this new situation that their children are put in that they’re going to have to address," Abbott said. "Now, it may mean dealing with the administration in Washington, it may mean that we come up with some new laws, but what’s important is we find remedies that allay the concerns of these parents about the situation their children have been put in." 

Abbott spoke with the Tribune as he left the gala, which was held by Trump's National Hispanic Advisory Council. The event featured brief remarks from Abbott's wife Cecilia, the first Hispanic first lady of Texas.

"Mr. Trump's message of economic opportunity, optimism and security really resonates with all Americans," she said, "and the Trump Hispanic Advisory Council was instrumental in helping Mr. Trump get that message out to the Hispanic population."

Republicans have high hopes for Trump’s administration, and the Texas governor is no exception. He said he expects Trump to quickly issue executive orders aimed at Obama-era measures, and he is looking forward to swift action on a repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

On border security, Abbott said he expects “stiffer enforcement” from the Trump administration, as well as some kind of fulfillment of Trump’s signature campaign promise to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.

"Because of the fencing that already exists, they can go into those areas that they already occupy and be able to build wall or build fencing or build whatever type of barrier that could stave off” illegal crossings, Abbott said. “But the real thing they could do immediately is really just an attitude change ... where the Trump administration will say, ‘No more will we allow people in illegally.’"

Aside from SB 6, lawmakers in Austin are currently focused on the budget, with the two chambers releasing their versions Tuesday. The state’s cash crunch has some lawmakers raising the prospect that they will need to turn to Texas’ Rainy Day Fund to plug holes in the budget.

Asked what advice he has for lawmakers on the Rainy Day Fund this session, Abbott hinted it could come in his State of the State address, which is scheduled for Jan. 31.

“Stay tuned,” he said. "I’ll speak more about the budget in my State of the State. Let me not give away too many secrets right now.”

He noted that he has laid out criteria, both as a gubernatorial candidate and during last session, for when lawmakers should turn to the fund. Abbott has proposed tapping the fund only for the purposes of "meeting unforeseen shortfalls in revenue, reducing existing debt, one-time infrastructure payments and expenses related to state disasters."

“I’m going to stick to that,” Abbott said.

For Abbott, the inauguration marks the beginning of the second half of his gubernatorial term. Talk of the 2018 races is already heating up in Austin, where Patrick recently held a news conference to try to finally quell speculation he wants to challenge Abbott. Earlier this week, Abbott's campaign disclosed having $34.4 million in the bank, a massive stockpile for a re-election bid.

Asked Thursday if he is expecting any challengers for re-election, Abbott invoked the freak accident that left him partially paralyzed at age 26.

“As a guy who’s in a wheelchair because a tree fell on him while he was jogging, my attitude is you never know when a tree’s going to fall on you,” Abbott said. "So be prepared for whatever may come, and I’ll be prepared."

As for his message to voters in 2018, Abbott suggested he would again focus on building GOP support in minority communities. 

"I believe that the Republican Party stands for the principles and ideas of the people who are in this room, which is the Hispanic community, of the African-American community, of the Asian community," Abbott said. "One of my goals during the next campaign cycle is to make sure that the values of the Republican Party connect with the values of every single group in the state of Texas."

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Politics 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Greg Abbott