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Analysis: In Texas, principles matter, but exceptions may apply

Things almost never come out of the Texas Legislature — if they come out at all — in the same shape they went in. Principles give way to exceptions and compromise, and the final product can differ greatly from the original idea.

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst signs a stack of bills during a recess in the Senate session on May 22, 2013.

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State lawmakers have highly discriminating tastes. Sometimes, it’s because they are just discriminating. Sometimes, it’s because they’ll take what they can get from a policy-making machine that kills almost everything and mangles nearly everything else.

This week, the Texas Senate changed a school choice bill, one the lieutenant governor calls "the civil rights issue of our age," pruning a statewide plan for public subsidies for private schools into one that won’t affect rural and smaller communities, where opposition was strong. They won an exception from bill supporters scrounging for votes from senators representing those areas.

That legislation includes education savings accounts — a form of vouchers — and a scholarship fund for poorer students, funded by insurance premium credits. And even with the changes that limit the bill’s geographic spread, it faces tough sledding in the House. It might die there — that’s the fate of almost four of every five proposed pieces of legislation. Or it might be reshaped again to win a majority in the House. Either way, it’s already a slimmed-down version of what was originally proposed.

Earlier in the week, senators took up a piece of legislation that began as something less than a full measure. It would end the practice of allowing government employees to deduct their union and non-union labor organization dues from the paychecks.

They built in an exception for police, firefighters and other first responders, but still defended the legislation as a principled stand against letting labor organizations collect dues from public-sector employees the way they collect dues from private-sector employees.

It’s a principle, but with an exception for favored groups.

It’s not that lawmakers are inconsistent, though it wouldn’t take Perry Mason or CSI to put that case together. It’s that laws only get passed after running a legislative obstacle course.

The “bathroom bill” — the most famous piece of legislation in Texas right now — has a huge cutout that exempts most of the public restrooms in the state.

Offered up as a way to protect the privacy and safety of women and children in public restrooms, the legislation would require people to use the restrooms that match their “biological sex.” Transgender men and women would be required to use facilities out of sync with the way they identify, act and dress. The bumper sticker political phrase used by supporters — No men in women’s bathrooms — was also used to help defeat the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in a November 2015 election.

It wouldn’t regulate that privacy and safety in all restrooms, however, and it actually prevents that regulation in privately owned restrooms that are open to the public. It allows owners to do what they want, more or less, but keeps local and state governments out of non-government water closets.

Senate Bill 6 has a big exemption that makes it clear that it would apply only to the bathrooms in buildings owned by state and local governments.

It’s not that lawmakers are inconsistent, though it wouldn’t take Perry Mason or CSI to put that case together. It’s that laws only get passed after running a legislative obstacle course.

The voucher bill got trimmed to win votes, and still faces daunting obstacles.

That dues bill got through as designed but is on its way to the House, where the same legislation died at the end of the 2015 session for lack of time.

House Speaker Joe Straus signaled his dislike for the bathroom bill at the get-go, and lawmakers in the state most famous for this idea — North Carolina — tweaked its law on Thursday to try to stem the serious political and economic blowback it has caused there. The Texas version got re-engineered some to get it through the Senate. If it passes in its current state, it will have no effect in most buildings in your city or town, and it will limit local governments’ ability to regulate where people go when they need to go.

If any of those three bills — or the hundreds of less prominent bills going through the same machinery — becomes law, they won’t look the way they looked at the beginning.

That’s just not the way lawmaking works.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • If you got the states together to take power away from the federal government, as Greg Abbott hopes to do, and if you increased the state's powers over laws passed by cities and counties and local voters, the most powerful office in the state capital would really be something. 
  • The denizens of the Texas Capitol are already talking about the possibility of a special session if lawmakers haven't finished the budget and other bills by Memorial Day. They might be worried, but you shouldn't be.
  • The Texas Senate is proposing a new accounting trick to balance its 2018-19 budget. The contrivance would work, mathematically speaking, but it raises constitutional questions and faces derision from the House.

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