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House Republican eyes alternative approach to "bathroom bill"

A Republican in the Texas House is pitching an alternative to the “bathroom bill,” saying he wants to focus more on local control than bathrooms.

State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano.

A Republican in the Texas House is pitching an alternative to the “bathroom bill,” saying he wants to focus more on local control than on bathrooms.

State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, filed legislation Monday that would prohibit local governments from setting restroom policies for private businesses. The measure, House Bill 1362, also says public schools cannot adopt policies that allow "more than one sex or gender" to use use the same "multi-occupancy private spaces."

The bill is similar to Senate Bill 6, a measure deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, which would require people to use restrooms in Texas public schools and government buildings based on their biological sex. SB 6 also pre-empts local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender Texans to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity.

Shaheen said he supports SB 6 but wanted to focus on the issue from a local control standpoint. One catalyst for his legislation was a proposed Houston ordinance in 2015 that would have made it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Houston voters soundly rejected the measure. 

“At the end of the day, what did the state of Texas create cities for? We never created cities to tell people where to go to the bathroom,” Shaheen said in an interview. “My bill is actually more a scope-of-government discussion. What’s the appropriate purpose of government?”

Shaheen's bill comes amid other conversations about local control bubbling at the Capitol, including ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft urging legislators to adopt statewide regulations rather than what they say are burdensome local ordinances. 

As for SB 6, supporters say the measure is needed to protect the safety of women and children, while critics say it would discriminate against transgender Texans. 

Some of those adversaries also have concerns with Shaheen's proposal, saying that rolling back existing ordinances that protect transgender Texans is a form of discrimination.

“There’s not a good version of the bathroom bill,” said Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, which advocates for LGBT Texans.

Smith pointed to Fort Worth and Dallas, two cities near Shaheen’s North Texas district in that have had ordinances protecting against gender discrimination on the books for more than a decade. In 2016, 12 Texas cities with populations of more than 100,000 offered some degree of protection to residents or city employees.

Shaheen said his bill seeks to "stop the politicization" by school boards and superintendents who set blanket bathroom policies for their districts. HB 1362 would allow public school districts to handle bathroom and locker room scenarios with students on a case-by-case basis, working with teachers, principals and parents to determine what accommodations, if any, are necessary. 

“There’s no way a serious person could call this bill discriminatory,” Shaheen said. "It tells people on the left side of the political spectrum they can't tell people where to go to the restroom, and it also tells people on the right side of the spectrum they can't, either. Whether you're on the right or left side, the bill is neutral." 

But the Texas Association of Business, a group opposed to SB 6, also has concerns with Shaheen's proposal. 

“We caution against any type of legislation that limits businesses’ ability to recruit talent, and doing away with local discrimination ordinances with that preemption would really tarnish the Texas brand,” said Chris Wallace, TAB’s president.

In December, TAB released a report warning anti-LGBT legislation could cost Texas more than 100,000 jobs and between $964 million and $8.5 billion

In the lower chamber, some supporters of SB 6 told the Tribune last week they're supportive of Shaheen's proposal.

State Reps. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, and Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said they were hopeful SB 6 or HB 1362 would make it to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's desk. The governor has remained largely neutral on the bathroom issue. 

State Rep. Mike Lang, a freshman Republican from Granbury, said he would support Shaheen's legislation in addition to supporting SB 6, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, called Shaheen's bill the "more thoughtful approach" when asked about the topic earlier in January.

In recent weeks, House Speaker Joe Straus has raised concerns about SB 6, saying it could be economically detrimental to the state. Straus did not return requests for comment for this story. 

Shaheen, elected to the House in 2014, represents West Plano and parts of North Dallas. He is a former Collin County commissioner.

"People shouldn’t be using the power of local government to push an agenda," Shaheen said. "We should be focused on what’s best for our children and our citizens — that’s the purpose of the bill."

Read related Tribune 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.
  • Following North Carolina's lead, Texas Republicans have unveiled Senate Bill 6, which would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.”
  • For Benjamin Elder, a transgender 10-year-old from Friendswood, the bathroom fight in Austin is just silly.

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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