Analysis: Texas Senate flushed with success

Texas Tribune News

Members of various faith communities met at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 1, 2017 to speak out against the "bathroom bill."
Members of various faith communities met at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 1, 2017 to speak out against the “bathroom bill.”
 Austin Price / The Texas Tribune

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If you borrow the lieutenant governor’s logic, what has been called “bathroom bill 2.0” has already been a resounding success.

No need to hassle the House or the governor over this: The Senate has approved it, and when it comes to culture war legislation, that’s a victory — even if the House and the governor never see it.

That was the case, at least, with the bathroom bill that ate the 2017 legislative session — and the special sessions that followed it. The Senate was for it. The House never voted. Nevertheless, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared victory.

“When you win the battle, you don’t have to fight the battle again,” Patrick said at a news conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen at the beginning of the current legislative session. “I think it’s been settled, and I think we’ve won.” He said the school district practices and rules that prompted the 2017 debate had abated. “Sometimes a bill doesn’t pass, but you win on the issue,” he said.

He hasn’t said anything of the kind about this year’s Senate Bill 17, which has been blasted as discriminatory by business and LGBTQ advocates, and which is now headed for the Texas House, but it’s in the same position now that the bathroom bill was at the end of the fight two years ago.

The Senate’s latest Us vs. Them issue, would protect holders of state occupational licenses — lawyers, plumbers, cosmeticians, architects, auctioneers, midwives, used auto parts recyclers and so on — from losing their licenses for professional behavior or speech based on “a sincerely held religious belief.”

It’s an offshoot of a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Colorado baker who was sanctioned for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The court said the state government board that ruled against baker Jack Phillips was unfairly hostile to his religious beliefs.

The author of the Texas legislation, Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said that “this bill does nothing to promote any illegal or discriminatory activity.” He successfully fought off an amendment that would have explicitly prohibited professionals from refusing service on the basis of a customer’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Supporters say the legislation protects people from punishment for following their own religious beliefs; opponents say it discriminates when those beliefs conflict with the rights of others.

That’s policy; look at the politics. If you were wondering, as some have, whether the Texas Legislature is still conservative, browse last week’s work from the Texas Senate. There was the border resolution in support of President Donald Trump, the legislation that would arm marshals in public schools, a move to break up partnerships between local governments and abortion providers, and Perry’s “religious refusal” bill.

Sure, they’re also talking about big across-the-board pay raises for teachers and for putting money into public education, but they’re still conservatives.

And the things they’re doing are popular with conservative voters. In the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll earlier this year, 66% of Republican voters said the state’s abortion laws should be stricter than they are now — a view shared by only 15% of Democrats. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say that teacher salaries and school funding should be getting legislative attention, but Republicans put a higher priority on property taxes— which is paired with education issues as the centerpieces of this legislative session.

At the end of the regular legislative session two years ago, the UT/TT Poll asked voters how important that year’s “bathroom bill” was to them. Overall, 44% deemed it important and 47% didn’t. But it was important to 70% of self-identified tea party Republicans and to 54% of non-tea party Republicans. Among Democrats, 53% said the legislation was not important to them.

Voters were also asked whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “A sincerely held religious belief is a legitimate reason to exempt someone from laws designed to prevent discrimination.”

Among Democrats, only 14% agreed. Republicans were split 40%—39%. And 57% of tea party voters agreed, while 29% disagreed.

It appeals to the conservative base.

In the current session, where the main issues of public education and teacher pay get support — but not fanatical support — from Republican voters, taking on the kinds of issues the Senate tackled last week makes political sense. Those play well with the people who elected most of the senators.