After defending against the "Bathroom Bill" in the legislative sessions earlier this year, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is going on offense.
Straus and his troops were caught rather flat-footed during the regular legislative session by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's all-out push for legislation to regulate the use of bathrooms by transgender people. So now, Straus wants to load up the economic arguments, as ammunition against an expected Patrick re-run of the bathroom effort in the 2019 legislative session, and during the 2018 election year leading up to it.
During a luncheon speech to the Austin Chamber of Commerce Thursday, Oct. 12, Straus unveiled a special House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness, to compile a report on the diverse factors that help Texas attract businesses – including education and infrastructure.
For instance, Texas and several states are vying to attract online retailer Amazon to their state to construct its second headquarters, besides its current one in Washington state.
"That's why we need to be at the top of our game," Straus told the Austin Chamber.
That includes Texas economic planners identifying, and avoiding, or correcting, negative factors that can keep companies from moving here, Straus said.
"We can continue to focus on issues like bathrooms that divide Texans and hurt the recruitment of employers and top talent, or we can focus on issues that actually support growth and respond to the demands of the local economy," Straus said.
Attracting businesses has gotten more complex, Straus told the chamber.
"After all, the formula isn't as simple as it used to be — being pro-business isn't just about tax breaks and cash incentives," Straus said. "It's also about education and tolerance and empathy and quality of life."
Straus said the special committee will study the diverse factors that demonstrate the state "is fully committed to private-sector growth" – and the body he oversees will take that very seriously.
"There should be no ambiguity that the Texas House will focus on the big and consequential instead of the petty and the polarizing," Straus told the Chamber.
A principal argument against the bathroom bill is what happened in North Carolina, which passed a similar bill in 2015.
The discrimination against transgenders led boycotts by conventions, traveling entertainers, tourists, officials from other states, and existing businesses' re-thinking plans to expand.
Estimates were that the long-term economic damage from those boycotts could run into the billions.
During the regular legislative session in Texas earlier this year, Patrick – the Senate's presiding officer – was unable to get the House to go along with him on a bathroom bill.
So Patrick held hostage a must-pass bill to extend the existence of several administrative agencies, as a tool to force a special session. It did, at a cost of about $1 million.
In the special session, however, the business community, that had largely watched the transgender battle from the sidelines during the regular session, got actively involved. It was late, but it proved enough.
Going into election year 2018, in advance of Patrick's expected third attempt to pass the bathroom bill in the 2019 regular legislative session, Straus wants to have a full quiver of recent testimonies from businesses, social groups, sports leagues, entertainers, and convention planners.
By the special committee holding weeks of public hearings before the filing deadline, gathering well-publicized testimony from businesses, convention planners, chamber of commerce executives and social groups, Straus and his allies hope to stop the anti-transgender effort much more efficiently than was the case earlier this year.
It may just be a coincidence that Straus instructed the special committee to report its findings by Dec. 12 -- the day after the filing deadline for the March 6 primary elections.
But Straus wants to provide a defensive shield for legislators who agree that Patrick's Bathroom Bill is not just a bad idea, but will put Texas at a competitive disadvantage in attracting businesses, conventions, entertainers, sports playoffs, and so on.
At the same time, Straus wants to give his troops involved in contested primary elections next year economic arguments to use as offensive weapons, if needed, against primary opponents who back the bathroom bill.
The House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness will be chaired by state Rep. Byron Cook, the Corsicana Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee where bathroom bills were bottled up during both recent sessions.
State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, will serve as vice chair.
Other members are Republican state Reps. Angie Chen Button of Richardson, Sarah Davis of West University Place, and Charlie Geren, of Fort Worth; and Democratic Reps. Joe Moodyof El Paso, and René Oliveira of Brownsville.