Set aside, for a moment, all substantive considerations about the coming legislative potty wars, whose first shot was fired Thursday by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick at a Capitol press conference, and it’s still impossible to approach the subject with anything but a sense of profound resignation.
It’s not impossible the bill will pass: Perhaps there is a yet-unseen groundswell of panic about transgender people that will materialize and force the hand of the Legislature. But there’s a lot of powerful interests opposed to it, so it’s more likely that the bill stumbles out of the Senate and dies weeks or months later in the House, having sucked an enormous amount of oxygen out of a very time-constrained legislative process and redirected a huge amount of public attention from an uncountable number of pressing issues.
Everything that is about to happen is the modern Texas Legislature in a nutshell. Lawmakers have fewer than five months, every other year, to run a government that serves nearly 28 million people and has complex, long-term problems. And most of the work happens in the last two or three months. Every session a lot of noise is generated about a contentious topic that represents a split between political factions at the Capitol, and it has the effect of shunting everything else to the side.
The thrown flash-bang grenade is Patrick’s go-to move. In 2015 he lobbed a lot of controversial bills into committees, forced his opponents to spend time fighting them, and then let them die in the process, including the Senate’s sanctuary cities and anti-Texas DREAM Act bills.
Take his pithy introduction to his bathroom bill on Thursday afternoon. “First of all, thank you all for coming,” he started. “Martin Luther King said, our lives begin to end the day we become silent on things that matter. This session, the Texas Privacy Act is unquestionably one of the things that matter.”
There’s more than a hint of doth protest too much in that statement, yet I don’t doubt that Patrick believes in the necessity of this bill. Watch footage of Patrick talking about transgender people, and it’s clear how much they bother him. But the MLK quote is tipping his hand. He’s trying to provoke. He’s very good at it — his political training is as a radio talk show host. He likes using MLK quotes. He used one at his inauguration, in the service of school choice.
But think: Things that matter. This is going to be a tough session. Revenue seems likely to be significantly more restricted than last session. All the long-term problems that Texas had last time — infrastructure funding shortages, poor health care, a school finance system that doesn’t make sense — are still there.
And lawmakers have also had ample time to educate themselves, in the interim, about Texas’ shamefully broken foster care system, to learn how the state has been effectively pushing significant numbers of disabled kids out of special education programs. They’ve also had time to sit with the fact that they voluntarily blew up the state’s Medicaid program for severely disabled children last session, which, even if fixed, has caused pain not just to the system but to kids themselves. Those three things are just in the narrow category of how the state treats at-risk children, and it’s not a complete list, either.
The fights over red-meat legislation tick a couple boxes for Patrick and his crew. It gets their base fired up about the people in Austin who are fighting for them, and it gives conservatives more reasons to be mad at House Speaker Joe Straus and other more moderate Republicans. They can even be marginally beneficial to Democrats, who can clock in wins when some or another bill is defeated.
But just as much, the ritual infighting is a product of, and in some ways has become important to the maintenance of, Texas as a one-party state. Republicans have had sole proprietorship of the place for almost 20 years. There’s no desire to grandstand over, or publicize, the many things that aren’t working well — it’s better if they’re handled quietly, with the blame shifted to state agencies.
Last session, when the budget was undergoing its final debate, state Senator Kevin Eltife rose to speak, almost apologetically. The essence of his remarks, directed to Patrick’s budget-writer, were: Texas is being snowed under by local debt and shaky fiscal obligations at the state level, and it threatens the long-term viability of the government and economy. Should we do something about that, someday? The reply was, in essence, sure, someday. After the session, his moment of speaking truth to power completed, Eltife retired.
In an imaginary Texas where the two parties would compete for power, it’s possible to imagine them beating each other up over how to run state government better — the Democrats running on foster care deaths for one election, Republicans running on state agency corruption the next. What we have instead is a dominant political party that increasingly wants to talk about anything other than their record and the status quo. That has real costs.
This year, that means toilet talk. It’s more than unfortunate that the effort comes now at the expense of a vulnerable population, for whom a larger public stigma sometimes manifests in violence. But that’s how it usually works: Mexicans, babykillers, gays and now, transgender kids and teens. So as SB 6 rolls on, as it becomes a national issue, and as Patrick and the business lobby go to war, ask yourself the old cynic’s question: Cui bono? Apart from Patrick, hardly anybody.