Straus calls scuttling of bathroom bill a 'turning point' for Texas

Austin American-Statesman |

--Declaring that the scuttling of the bathroom bill this year "can be and needs to be a turning point" in how Texas presents itself to the world, House Speaker Joe Straus on Thursday named a special committee to study and highlight what the state should do to draw jobs, investment and workers.

"We can continue to focus on issues like bathrooms that divide Texans and hurt the recruitment of employers and top talent, or we can focus on issues that actually support growth and respond to the demands of the local economy," Straus told a Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Hilton Austin Hotel downtown.

"The world is watching, CEOs are watching, and the best and the brightest minds in every industry are watching, and they need to see that Texas still welcomes them, that our state presents unmatched advantages and unlimited opportunities," Straus said.

Straus, a San Antonio Republican, framed the two-month mission of the new House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness as developing a statement of principles essential to economic growth.

The committee is firmly stamped in Straus' image -- starting with its chairman, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who, as State Affairs Committee chairman, was instrumental in Straus' successful effort to scuttle the transgender bathroom legislation championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and backed by Gov. Greg Abbott, in this year's regular and special sessions.

None of the seven members of the new committee -- whose vice chairwoman is Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston -- backed the legislation intended to block localities from creating and implementing transgender-friendly rules for public restrooms and school locker rooms.

The committee -- which also includes Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson, Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and René Oliveira, D-Brownsville -- can be expected to return to the House a verdict that what is needed to make Texas economically competitive is very much in line with the speaker's -- and those members' -- top priorities.

That includes investing in education and infrastructure, and eschewing social issues.

More than tax breaks

Straus has been the object in recent months of no-confidence votes by more than 50 Republican Party county executive committees by critics who consider his leadership the biggest obstacle to conservative legislation in Austin and want to see him replaced as Texas House speaker in 2019.

But Straus is a hero to more moderate Republicans, many Democrats and to business audiences like the one he thanked Thursday for making their voices heard against the bathroom bill.

"I've often said the business community needs to get more active on high-profile issues, and over the course of the summer that's exactly what you did," Straus said. "From high-tech startups to the travel industry to global oil and gas firms, Texas employers sent a message about who we are as a state."

Straus set a deadline for the committee to report back.

"There should be no ambiguity that the Texas House will focus on the big and consequential instead of the petty and the polarizing," Straus said.

Asked by reporters if he thought his initiative would have buy-in from the governor and lieutenant governor, Straus said, "I imagine we will. We're all for economic development."

Abbott and Patrick did not offer any immediate comment on Straus' announcement.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, was dismissive.

"I think it shows a lack of leadership," he said. "The speaker of the second-largest state in the country shouldn't have to form a committee to determine how to remain economically competitive."

"If he doesn't know by now that lower taxes, lower spending and less regulation is good for business, then he needs to step aside," Rinaldi said.

But in his remarks, Straus said, "The formula is not as simple as it used to be. Being pro-business isn't just about tax breaks and cash incentives.

"Those things of course still count," he said, "But it's also about education and tolerance and empathy and quality of life."

Noting the intense competition to become the site of Amazon's second headquarters, Straus said, "that's why we need to be at the top of our game."

Praise for Austin

On the speaker's way out of the Hilton, Robert Watson, the hotel's general manager, thanked Straus for his leadership in quashing the bathroom legislation.

Watson said that even though it was not enacted, the threat that it might be enacted cost the hotel $1 million in cancellations.

Earlier, Straus told the chamber audience that "because I serve over at the state Capitol, I'm supposed to say that Austin is an anti-business, anti-liberty, big government hotbed. When I go home to San Antonio, I just might. But this community regularly winds up on the list of some of the best in the country for business, so you must be doing something right."

That was a reference to the disparagement of Austin and its political culture by the governor this summer, and suggestions by Patrick that all the problems in America reside in cities with Democratic mayors.

But, Straus said, "Across Texas, red and blue communities alike have a stellar record of attracting jobs and employment. We should be proud, but we shouldn't be complacent."


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