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Straus condemns "bathroom bill," talks local control

House Speaker Joe Straus said the controversial bathroom bill felt "manufactured and unnecessary."

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus was interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith at The Texas Tribune Festival on Oct. 17, 2015.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Friday gave perhaps his harshest condemnation yet of the controversial “bathroom bill” championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Straus said the bill, which has drawn the ire of Texas businesses and been criticized as discriminatory against transgender people, felt “manufactured and unnecessary.”

“If we’ve gotten to the point in our civilization, in our society, that our politicians have to pass bills about bathroom stuff ... I mean, we’ve gotten really out of control,” he said.

"For it to get this much attention in a legislative session is astounding to me," he added.

The proposal would regulate bathroom use in public schools and government buildings on the basis of “biological sex,” prohibiting most transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity. The legislation would also nix local anti-discrimination laws meant to allow transgender residents to use public bathrooms that match their gender identity.

“I oppose it," Straus said. "... I don’t feel a great deal of fervor to promote that bill in the House.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and a Texas Tribune pollster, Straus downplayed tensions between the House and the Senate and distanced himself from recent comments made by Gov. Greg Abbott about city and county policies.

Asked about Abbott’s Tuesday remark that he wants the Legislature to pass a “broad-based law” that pre-empts local regulations, Straus said he didn’t know “exactly” what the governor had said but that Straus preferred a “step-by-step” approach to issues of local control.

“I don’t think a blanket policy on exerting power from Austin over locals is a particularly attractive idea, and I don’t think it’ll happen,” Straus said.

On "sanctuary cities," one flashpoint issue of local control this legislative session, Straus predicted the lower chamber would pass a bill “of some sort” that would target cities with local policies discouraging cooperation with federal immigration officials seeking to deport unauthorized immigrants. Still, he suggested there were significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill that were yet to be worked out.

Local control has been a point of contention at the Capitol since Abbott took office criticizing what he called a "patchwork of local regulations." After the 2015 legislative session, Abbott signed a bill that pre-empted local efforts to regulate drilling-related activity, a response to the now-repealed Denton fracking ban. This session, state lawmakers are looking for ways to bring back ride-hailing services such as Uber after the company left some Texas cities in protest of local regulations.

While Straus said it was normal for disagreements to surface between himself, Patrick and Abbott during a tight-fisted budget year, he needled the Senate on some of its priority bills, including a private school voucher program, and the upper chamber’s approach to budget-writing.

He said the Senate’s aversion to using the state’s savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to avoid cuts to public programs in a year of penny-pinching was because of “contrivances that dictate when you can and can’t use it.” He suggested the arguments fiscal hawks have raised against using the fund had come from “some big donor’s think tank or something." 

Among state programs that were likely to face budget cuts, Straus singled out public universities, though he has stressed that the House seeks to set aside more higher education funding than the Senate has proposed.

Straus said he opposed regulating the amount of tuition public universities are allowed to charge students. Texas higher education “is a pretty good bargain, and the supply and demand out there seems to be working,” he said.

“I’m not downplaying the burdens of the cost of higher education on our young people and their families,” Straus said, but he opposed tuition regulation “particularly in years when we’re also cutting [universities’] funding."

Read more of the Tribune's related coverage:

  • Earlier this month, asked if he had given up hope that Gov. Greg Abbott would weigh in on the so-called "bathroom bill," House Speaker Joe Straus responded: “I never give up on anyone.”
  • In a radio interview Thursday, Straus said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has a different audience than he does. "He’s an entertainer, a talk show guy. And a statewide elected official. I’m not," Straus said.

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Politics 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus