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Texas business leaders stayed neutral on "bathroom" amendment

Pro-business forces, which had for months warned that a "bathroom bill" could be disastrous for the state's bottom line, held their fire during Sunday's debate over a bill amendment dealing with the controversial issue.

Representatives look at the board as a vote is taken on a bill amendment that would require schools to provide single-stall restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities to students who don't want to use facilities designated by “biological sex" at the state Capitol on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

Throughout this legislative session, a coalition of businesses has made up much of the opposition to lightning-rod efforts to regulate which bathrooms transgender Texans can use. Working with the Texas Association of Business, they have released economic impact studies, sent letters to lawmakers and held news conferences, warning that a "bathroom bill" would be disastrous for the state's bottom line.

On Sunday, however, the pro-business forces took a neutral stance on an amendment addressing bathroom use by transgender Texans in public schools, according to people familiar with the decision. The amendment by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, passed 91-50, finally giving the House its response to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's months-long demands for a vote on such a proposal. 

The neutrality was driven by a couple of factors, according to the people familiar with the decision, including the challenge of getting such a broad coalition on the same page in a short period of time. Perhaps more importantly, though, they recognized what many other bathroom bill opponents at the Capitol did — that the Paddie amendment was the least worst resolution to a session that Patrick had threatened to force to an overtime round, where a more damaging measure could prevail.

"We’re big boys and girls, and we can certainly understand the realities of life around here," said Jim Keffer, a former GOP state representative whom the Texas Association of Business brought on board in March to focus on issues including discriminatory legislation. "It was disappointing that it had to come in the first place."

The Paddie amendment, which was added to a school safety bill, would require schools to provide single-stall restrooms, locker rooms and changing facilities to students who don't want to use facilities designated by “biological sex.” It was a much narrower measure than Senate Bill 6, the Patrick-championed bathroom bill that passed the Senate months ago, or House Bill 2899, which some had hoped would have been the lower chamber's alternative to SB 6.

In any case, it appeared the bathroom bill debate was not entirely over following the passage of the Paddie amendment. On Monday, Patrick issued a statement suggesting it was not strong enough. The lieutenant governor has previously said he is prepared to go to a special session if the House does not act on the bathroom issue.

While they were neutral on the Paddie amendment, business groups made clear Monday they still had concerns about such a proposal, even if they were less vocal than usual. The Texas Association of Business did not widely release a statement on the amendment after it passed, but when asked for comment, it provided a reaction from its president, Chris Wallace.

"The Keep Texas Open for Business Coalition and the Texas business community have been consistent and clear in our opposition to discriminatory legislation," Wallace said. "We appreciate the hard work of Speaker [Joe] Straus and the Texas House leadership to try to find workable legislation that considers the privacy and dignity of all children and with respect for all children."

"We remain extremely concerned that the perception of the amendment could tarnish the stellar reputation of Texas being open for business," Wallace added. 

The Dallas Regional Chamber issued a similar statement, reiterating its opposition to discriminatory legislation but thanking Straus and Paddie "for finding a reasonable and 'common-sense' approach that recognizes the fact that local public school districts have been showing leadership on this sensitive issue for some time."

Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, said Monday afternoon she had already heard from a couple of business leaders alarmed by the national media coverage generated by the passage of the Paddie amendment. "Discrimination Sunday," read one headline in The Washington Post. 

"They say that the headlines alone will hurt them," Shortall said. The perception created by such stories, she added, remain her "first and biggest concern."

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, credited the business community with giving "it their all as we were entering session and during the first half of session." On Sunday evening, however, she said they were "disappointingly quiet."

Israel also pointed to a broader theme emerging from this session: Republicans spurning the kinds of pro-business forces that have had stronger sway over them in previous years.

"That may be an indicator that the Republican Party doesn't care what the business community says anymore," she said. "There's no price to pay."

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Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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