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Analysis: Bathrooms, business and ballots

House Speaker Joe Straus prevailed in the legislative skirmishes over bathroom regulations; now he's got a fast-track House committee looking at "economic competitiveness." That could reframe the bathroom issue for 2018's elections.


By Ross Ramsey

Joe Straus wants a committee to look at the state’s economic competitiveness, to make sure the state government doesn’t spoil a high-functioning business environment.

That might be a good government idea. It’s a great political idea.

The House speaker’s timing is adroit. The new House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness is on a short fuse, with 60 days to “look at issues such as workforce readiness, infrastructure and state and local economic development tools,” according to the speaker’s announcement. “The committee will also study the reasons that employers give for choosing, or not choosing, to do business in a particular state.”

In case that’s too indirect, think bathrooms. Straus came out on the winning side in the Texas Legislature’s recent rumbles over whether and how to regulate which restrooms and other facilities transgender Texans should be allowed to use. His argument — bolstered, late in the game, by a swell of support from business leaders — was that proposed state regulations would hurt the state’s image with the people making decisions about business expansions and relocations.

Those business leaders argued that regulations like those considered in Texas and passed or considered in other states were inconsiderate of their employees and customers.

“Our companies are competing every day to bring the best and brightest talent to Dallas,” a group of North Texas CEOs said in a letter, one of several from businesses inside and outside of the state. “To that end, we strongly support diversity and inclusion. This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world.”

Another letter, from San Antonio executives, was explicit: “Controversial issues, such as regulation of bathrooms, divert much needed attention from what really matters.”

Bathrooms aren’t the only variable in the business development equation, but they’re the topical one, splitting incumbent Republican lawmakers and their potential challengers into factions on an issue of some interest to primary voters.

Among other things, those primaries will answer a question that animated much of the regular and special legislative sessions this year: Are conservative voters in sync with conservative business leaders, and are lawmakers who sided with business in danger when those voters enter polling places next year?

The March 6 primaries are less than five months away. Candidates who want to run in 2018 have to file with the state by Dec. 11.

The deadline for the new committee’s report is Dec. 12.

“The world is watching, from CEOs to the best and brightest workers,” Straus said in a news release. “They need to see that Texas welcomes them and is determined to stay at the front of the pack when it comes to economic development.”

Straus wants the committee “to highlight the principles that the Texas House believes are critical to economic growth.” He mentioned tax breaks and incentive funds already in place, but said businesses are also looking for good public and higher education, and “a high quality of life for their employees.”

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, will chair the panel. He’s the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee. He’s also the legislator blamed by many “bathroom bill” supporters for killing their proposal in the Texas House. Cook survived a challenge in last year’s Republican primary from Thomas McNutt, getting 225 more of the 28,617 votes cast in that race.

That’s tight. McNutt, part of the family that built a prosperous fruitcake company, the Collin Street Bakery, is planning to come back for another swing at Cook.

That won’t be the only race where this comes up; the bathroom bill is a classic wedge issue, dividing one group of Republicans from another in a way that makes voters’ choices seem clearer.

Social conservatives have an outsized voice in recent Republican primaries: One great example was the 2014 race where then-state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston beat three statewide elected officials — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples — by running as the most conservative choice.

To keep his momentum — not to mention the state representatives most likely to keep him in the speaker’s chair for two more years — Straus and the establishment Republicans need continuing support from the business leaders who opposed the bathroom bill.

One faction wants the primaries to be a debate over morals. Straus wants a focus on the Texas economy, and his new committee could offer protection to candidates making that argument.

One sees a shield, the other a fig leaf.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune 

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