Ab­bott’s true view ques­tioned

He op­posed bill be­fore en­dors­ing it, leg­is­la­tor says

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By ROBERT T. GAR­RETT Staff Writer rt­gar­rett@dal­las­news.com

AUSTIN — Late in last year’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion, Gov. Greg Ab­bott sig­naled that he would sign a bath­room bill.

But ear­lier in the year, Rep. By­ron Cook says, then-ab­bott Chief of Staff Daniel Hodge told him and lead­ers of Texas in­dus­try that “the gov­er­nor did not want that bill on his desk.”

The bill to re­strict trans­gen­der Tex­ans’ use of re­strooms posed a big threat to the state’s pros­per­ity, ac­cord­ing to Cook.

Cook, a Cor­si­cana Repub­li­can, said in an in­ter­view that Ab­bott nev-

re­mained silent about the bill’s risks. Of Repub­li­cans con­trol­ling the Capi­tol, House lead­ers alone had to shoul­der the po­lit­i­cally painful task of killing the mea­sure, which they did, Cook said.

“We’re sent here to do what’s right for the state,” he said. “We have laws on the books that ad­dress any sit­u­a­tion this pro­posed leg­is­la­tion would con­tem­plate.”

Cook said House lead­ers and busi­ness types were sur­prised when Ab­bott said he would sign such leg­is­la­tion and made it a pri­or­ity in a spe­cial ses­sion.

Cook said he hoped Ab­bott would re­pu­di­ate any in­tent to have a bath­room bill passed in Texas.

“That would re­ally be a pos­i­tive step,” Cook said.

Ab­bott spokesman Matt Hirsch de­clined to com­ment. Hodge, now a lob­by­ist in Austin, did not re­spond to a tele­phone mes­sage or an email.

State lead­ers’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with “man­u­fac­tured so­cial is­sues” such as bath­room ac­cess and a ban on sanc­tu­ary cities has di­verted Texas from im­prov­ing things — such as em­ploy­ees’ com­mute times and prox­im­ity to good schools — that are cru­cial to CEOS’ de­ci­sions on where to locate new head­quar­ters and in­stal­la­tions, Cook’s panel said in a fi­nal re­port re­leased Tues­day.

The House Select Com­mit­tee on Eco­nomic Com­pet­i­tive­ness, cre­ated in the fall by Speaker Joe Straus, be­moaned de­fi­cien­cies in Texas’ work­force train­ing, in­fras­truc­ture and fund­ing of pub­lic schools and state col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

The panel, stud­ded with Straus al­lies, sharply re­buked Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick, the Se­nate and Ab­bott. It said any re­peat of what hap­pened in 2017 would se­ri­ously dull Texas’ edge as a leader in eco­nomic devel­op­ment.

The seven-mem­ber com­mit­tee also urged law­mak­ers to re­view tax ex­emp­tions that may have out­lived their use­ful­ness and make sure busi­ness sub­si­dies are used con­sis­tently.

Bath­rooms, im­mi­gra­tion

The panel warned that bills on bath­rooms and im­mi­gra­tion, no mat­ter how dear to some staunch con­ser­va­tives, threaten to be­smirch the state’s rep­u­ta­tion with de­ci­sion mak­ers in a new, high-tech-driven econ­omy.

Ab­bott’s own eco­nomic devel­op­ment di­rec­tor ac­knowl­edged that the bath­room bill had made his job of lur­ing busi­nesses to Texas more dif­fi­cult, the re­port noted.

“Highly di­vi­sive leg­is­la­tion that ap­pears hos­tile to­ward cer­tain groups can hurt the state’s abil­ity to at­tract busi­nesses and in­vest­ment,” it con­cluded.

Cook, asked if he and Straus were set­tling scores as they pre­pare to leave of­fice, said the re­port does no such thing. Rather, he said, it dis­tills the thoughts of 42 busi­ness, ed­u­ca­tion and civic lead­ers who tes­ti­fied be­fore the panel in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber.

Cook said he hoped fu­ture Tex­ans would re­gard it as a well-timed ad­mo­ni­tion that the state can’t rest on its lau­rels.

“This isn’t re­hash­ing a leg­isla­tive ses­sion as much as it is ask­ing, ‘What do we need to be look­ing at prospec­tively to keep Texas on the eco­nomic fore­front?’ We’re com­pet­ing in a global econ­omy.”

The bath­room bill, pushed by Pa­trick and the Se­nate, would have re­quired trans­gen­der peo­ple to use bath­rooms and locker rooms in schools and govern­ment build­ings that match the sex on their govern­ment-is­sued IDS. The Se­natepassed bill did not tell pri­vate busi­nesses and pri­vate schools how to reg­u­late their bath­rooms, and it in­cluded a carve-out for sta­di­ums and other large venues.

The House panel scoffed at senators’ ar­gu­ments that the bill was needed to pro­tect women and girls against preda­tors in bath­rooms. Law en­force­ment of­fi­cials tes­ti­fied that they had no ev­i­dence that bath­room as­saults were a crit­i­cal pub­lic safety prob­lem, the panel noted.

The re­port also ques­tioned why senators ap­plied the bill only to some bath­rooms, not all, and noted that Waco econ­o­mist Ray Per­ry­man had es­ti­mated that a bath­room bill would de­prive Texas of $3.3 bil­lion a year in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity.

Cook said he wasn’t op­ti­mistic, how­ever, that state GOP lead­ers would drop the idea. He ridiculed the non­bind­ing ques­tion on the topic that was put to Repub­li­can vot­ers dur­ing last week’s pri­mary, say­ing it was “framed to make sure every­body voted for it.” Of the more than 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple who voted, 90 per­cent voted in fa­vor.

Ama­zon’s HQ2

In 2016 and early last year, Ab­bott stayed out of the bath­room fight. He did not come off the fence and say he’d sign a bath­room bill un­til mid-april, when there were just six weeks left in the 140-day reg­u­lar leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Cook, who heads the pow­er­ful House State Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, sat on the bill. When Ab­bott re­sus­ci­tated it in a late-sum­mer spe­cial ses­sion, Cook again quashed it.

Dal­las Mav­er­icks owner and tele­com pioneer Mark Cuban told the panel that the bath­room bill could hurt Texas’ chances of land­ing the re­tail giant Ama­zon’s sec­ond head­quar­ters and other eco­nomic-devel­op­ment plums.

“When the Leg­is­la­ture takes ex­treme po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions on is­sues, it presents a man­age­ment risk to large cor­po­ra­tions, like Ama­zon, that might want to move here,” he tes­ti­fied.

Dal­las Stars ex­ec­u­tive Jim Lites, Dal­las busi­ness­man Tom Luce and Perot Group chair­man H. Ross Perot Jr. also tes­ti­fied that they were con­cerned that the Leg­is­la­ture’s pri­or­i­ties might be out of whack.

“The Texas mir­a­cle wasn’t a mir­a­cle,” Luce said. It was in­stead the re­sult of care­ful ef­forts by the busi­ness com­mu­nity and state lead­ers, he said.

Pa­trick has hotly dis­puted as­ser­tions that the bath­room bill would be an eco­nomic drag. He es­pe­cially as­sailed the Texas As­so­ci­a­tion of Busi­ness for a re­port it is­sued about the bill’s po­ten­tial costs.

On Tues­day, rep­re­sen­ta­tives for Pa­trick did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

School fi­nance

Cook’s panel also took Ab­bott to task over school fi­nance.

The 2.5-per­cent rev­enue cap on prop­erty tax rev­enue that Ab­bott re­cently pro­posed “will be detri­men­tal to school fund­ing” un­less the Leg­is­la­ture pro­vides more state aid, the re­port said.

The House panel em­pha­sized that, af­ter ad­just­ing for pop­u­la­tion growth and in­fla­tion, state spend­ing on pub­lic schools has de­creased nearly 16 per­cent since 2008. Deerthe­less clin­ing state sup­port is the big driver of in­creases in lo­cal school prop­erty taxes, which is about half of peo­ple’s to­tal prop­erty tax bill, Straus and the House panel stressed.

Also, the re­port said, the so­called sanc­tu­ary cities bill that Ab­bott and Pa­trick strongly sup­ported was, like the bath­room bill, an “un­nec­es­sary so­cial is­sue” that di­verted law­mak­ers from “crit­i­cal top­ics.”

Hous­ton Po­lice Chief Art Acevedo, the re­port noted, at­trib­uted a drop in the re­port­ing of sex­ual as­saults in His­panic neigh­bor­hoods in his city to the new law, which bars cities and coun­ties from pro­hibit­ing their em­ploy­ees from as­sist­ing fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers. The law has eroded His­pan­ics’ trust in lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cers, Acevedo said.

Stan Marek, pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of a fam­ily-owned Hous­ton con­struc­tion com­pany, tes­ti­fied that the law has prompted many im­mi­grants, doc­u­mented and un­doc­u­mented, to refuse to go to South­east Texas work sites for fear that they would be de­tained by lo­cal po­lice.

The Dal­las area also has a short­age of con­struc­tion work­ers, the com­mit­tee said.

The com­mit­tee called for bet­ter state fund­ing of K-12 and higher ed­u­ca­tion and new ef­forts to at­tack a “mis­match” be­tween the skills of young peo­ple and the highly tech­ni­cal jobs of the chang­ing econ­omy.

It noted that a civil en­gi­neers group has given Texas a C-mi­nus for its over­all in­fras­truc­ture.

The re­port also said that the Texas Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion needs a more sta­ble rev­enue source than the oil and gas sev­er­ance taxes awarded to it through a 2014 con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment.

It called for law­mak­ers to give more at­ten­tion to wa­ter sup­plies, im­proved ru­ral in­ter­net ser­vice, hous­ing con­struc­tion in flood­plains and high home prices in San An­to­nio and Austin.

File Photo/austin Amer­i­can-states­man

Sens. Bran­don Creighton (left), Bryan Hughes and Joan Huff­man dis­cussed the bath­room bill in the Se­nate last July. State lead­ers’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with such “man­u­fac­tured so­cial is­sues” has di­verted Texas from im­prove­ments cru­cial to cor­po­rate lo­ca­tion de­ci­sions, a state House panel says in a new re­port.


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