AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas' legislative session was winding down Sunday, with an all but dead "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people caught in a clash between mainstream Republicans and the most conservative wing of the party that dominates politics in the nation's second-largest state.
Lawmakers were resolving last-minute issues ahead of Monday's final adjournment — but their focus was already shifting to whether Gov. Greg Abbott would order them back to work if a law, like the one that caused national uproar and costly boycotts when it was approved last year in North Carolina, doesn't pass in Texas.
"I think it's dead for the regular session between now and tomorrow," said Rep. Ron Simmons, a Republican from Carrollton in suburban Dallas who pushed a version of the bathroom bill in the Texas House.
A Democrat hasn't won statewide office since 1994 in Texas, the longest political losing streak in the nation, and the state so relishes small government that its Legislature only convenes every other year. That means state lawmakers won't meet again until 2019, unless Abbott calls a special session, which lasts 30 days and can cover any issue the governor choses.
Abbott has said previously he's hesitant to drag legislators back to work over any issue, but he's also bucked other GOP governors in supporting legislation that could impose transgender restroom restrictions.
Abbott spokesman John Wittman declined comment Sunday, referring queries to a statement he released Friday night saying: "The taxpayers deserve to have the Legislature finish their work on time."
Tensions between the state Senate and House — both Republican-controlled — have been building for months but boiled over during the final weekend. The more conservative Senate passed a comprehensive law months ago compelling transgender Texans to use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.
The House last weekend approved a scaled-back measure applying only to public schools, which educate roughly 5.3 million students, more than any other state except California. It bars transgender students from choosing the bathroom they use, but allows schools to direct them to separate, single occupancy facilities.
The Senate rejected the House version as too watered down. But Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, who has long opposed the bathroom bill as potentially bad for Texas' economy, said his chamber would go no further. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former radio talk show host who oversees the Senate and loves picking conservative fights, responded by imploring Abbott to call a special session.
Adding to the tensions was a Saturday letter from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Apple CEO Tim Cook and a dozen other tech industry giants. They urged abandoning the bathroom bill. The NFL and NBA have hinted that approving it could cost Texas future top sporting events — even though Houston successfully hosted the Super Bowl in February. Leading businesses and lobbyists have also rejected the would-be law, and top Hollywood and music stars have hinted at state boycotts should it pass.
While the bathroom bill cast the longest shadow over the session's final hours, it may be a more mundane proposal on state agencies that ultimately looms largest. A routine procedural bill to extend the life of five Texas agencies. That includes a medical oversight law that previously died in the Texas House, after some of its most conservative members killed every item on a legislative calendar full of non-controversial issues.
Patrick has deliberately not moved the Senate version since, and says it could mean Texas might not be able to license medical personnel after September. He says Abbott will have to call a special session to resolve that issue — thus letting him add the bathroom bill and other top conservative priorities, like deep property tax cuts, to the agenda.
"We'll pass it in the special," he said Sunday of the oversight bill. So far, though, Abbott has given no indication he'll comply.