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Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton on Friday revived and helped advance a bill that would restrict transgender students from participating in school sports, in what appears to be a retaliatory effort directed at members of his own party for sinking one of his bills.
Senate Bill 29, abhorred by fellow Democrats, would require the University Interscholastic League to force students to play on the sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.
The bill, which already passed in the Senate, is a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Dutton, who chairs the House Public Education committee, brought the legislation up for a committee vote on Tuesday, where it failed to advance, in large part, because Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty was absent that day and because Dutton himself abstained from voting for or against the bill.
On Thursday night, Dutton, who is from Houston, presented his own bill to the House floor that would give Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath the ability to take over a district that fails to meet various academic standards and remove school board members. The bill is largely in response to a current legal battle between the Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD after the agency attempted to take over the district in 2019, but was blocked from moving forward by a temporary injunction that's been upheld by the state's Third Court of Appeals. Dutton's alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years.
That bill, which is largely unpopular among Democrats, was blocked from being voted on after a fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen sank it on a procedural technicality. Dutton and Allen sparred over the bill's intent on the House floor with Allen arguing the bill would provide the TEA with too much latitude to take over an independent school district without providing any recourse for a district.
"When the school goes down, the community goes down and the developers move in," she said as Dutton repeatedly rejected her assessment. "That's the long effect of this bill passing."
After his bill was stalled, Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, who worked with Allen on the objection, said she saw Dutton walk toward her at the back of the chamber.
"He said something to the effect of, 'Because of what you did, SB 29 is coming back up," Ortega said.
Dutton followed through with his promise the next morning in the House Public Education committee as he brought the transgender student athlete bill up for another vote.
“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said.
He and Huberty then joined with the previous yes votes, giving SB 29 an 8-5 majority and advancing it out of committee. The bill must still be approved by the House before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.
Abbott did not return a request for comment, but told Fox News's Laura Ingraham earlier this month that he would sign SB 29 if it came to his desk.
State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, who also sits on the Public Education committee, called the vote “soul-crushing.”
"The vote, bringing it back up, was used as a form of retaliation by the chairman," Bernal said in an interview.
Dutton did not respond to calls for comment.
House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner said in a statement Friday that he is “severely disappointed” it was voted out of committee.
“Any policy that harms the emotional and educational well-being for our students is bad for Texas students, for Texas families, and for our state,” Turner said. “The bill should move no further in the process, and the Texas House should be allowed to focus on common-sense policies that benefit Texans, not discriminatory legislation that attacks our children.”
LGBTQ rights groups have also condemned the bill for threatening the rights and mental health of transgender children in the state.
“We are already hearing from parents of transgender children who now realize their kids' lives and dignity were used as a legislative bargaining chip,” said Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas. “It is an incomprehensible betrayal to see a Democrat, who heard desperate testimony from children and parents, take this incredibly harmful action out of sheer vindictiveness toward his Democratic colleagues.”
Supporters have said the bill is necessary to protect women's sports, arguing allowing transgender women or girls to play on a girls sports team might give them an unfair advantage since they have higher levels of testosterone. In committee hearing, medical experts testified many transgender women go through puberty suppression and hormone treatments that suppress testosterone. They also pointed out that physical capabilities differ greatly within cisgender men and women, concluding evidence for supporters’ claims are inconclusive.
LGBTQ advocates are also concerned the bill may lead to incidents where masculine female athletes are forced to go through traumatizing investigations over their sex assigned at birth in order to compete in sports.
That concern has already manifested in the case of Heather Gothard, a cisgender female runner who was targeted by social media posts falsely claiming she was transgender and that should be disqualified from competitive races.
“While SB 29 specifically seeks to target transgender kids, it will open the door for discrimination towards any child who does not fit the gender norms expected of them,” said Adri Perez, Policy and Advocacy Strategist of the ACLU of Texas.
Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan has not responded to multiple requests for comment on SB 29, but he has expressed resistance to anti-LGBTQ bills in the past. In an interview during the 2019 legislative session, when the so-called transgender “bathroom bill” was under consideration, Phelan said that he’s “done talking about bashing on the gay community.”
“It’s completely unacceptable,” he told the Tribune.
Disclosure: Equality Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.