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Times Record News (Wichita Falls, Texas)
AUSTIN - In his his most pointed criticism about the legislation that would limit the restroom options for transsexual Texans, House Speaker Joe Straus told a business group Wednesday that such a measure could undermine the state's ability to compete for jobs and commerce.
"One way to maintain our economic edge is to send the right signals about who we are," the Republican speaker told the Texas Association of Business at its annual conference. "So I think we should be very careful about doing something that could make Texas less competitive for investments, jobs and the highly skilled workforce needed to compete."
Straus said his concerns about the legislation, strongly backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate, is rooted in the concerns he's heard from his House district constituents in San Antonio, which will host the NCAA's 2018 Final Four basketball tournament and is always on the lookout for additional business opportunities.
"And it's not just about basketball tournaments or conventions," said Straus, who before the legislative session began said only that a "bathroom bill" was not a priority.
"Many people where I come from get concerned about anything that could slow down our overall job-creating machine.They're also watching what's happened in North Carolina, and they're not enthusiastic about getting that type of attention."
On this topic, Straus was speaking to a friendly audience. Last month, the association joined several groups urging lawmakers to spend their efforts this session on other matters. The association cited a study by St. Edwards University in Austin showing that such a measure would cost Texas $8.5 billion in lost economic activity and deprive the state of 100,000 jobs.
When Patrick rolled out the actual legislation, Senate Bill 6, he emphasized that it would not be as far-reaching as the measure enacted last year in North Carolina. The Texas bill would not require private businesses to limit transsexual people's access to their public restrooms. But it would require that public restroom in government buildings be used in accordance to someone's gender at birth.
It would also prohibit local governments from requiring private businesses to adopt transsexual-friendly restroom policies.
Patrick's media relations office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Straus' remarks to the business group.
The speaker, meanwhile, made it clear that he was not speaking for the full House and that he hoped to hear more detailed reaction from Gov. Greg Abbott regarding Senate Bill 6 or any similar measure that might come up during the legislative session.
Speaking with reporters last month, Abbott declined to take a firm stand on whether a state "bathroom bill" is needed, saying only that the issue required a "full evaluation."
Straus, who took a few questions from reporters after his remarks to the business group, said he's not yet had detailed conversations on the matter with either Abbott or Patrick. But Patrick, who sets the agenda for the Texas Senate, has made clear that he intends to pass SB 6 through the Republican-dominated Senate.
Republicans also dominate the House, as they have for more than a decade. But under Straus, now in his fifth term as speaker, the lower chamber has steered more of a moderate course. Straus would not say whether the House would derail any bathroom that the Senate might send it, but instead said members should "have a good conversation" about any legislation on the subject.
But before that, he told the business conference attendees that they should make it clear to lawmakers at the Capitol whatever feeling they might have.
"If you are concerned too," he said, "now is the time to speak up."
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