When state Sen. Kirk Watson quizzed Sen. Lois Kolkhorst on the Senate floor about the scope of her bill to outlaw certain transgender-friendly bathrooms in Texas, she made it clear that the measure would apply to public schools and local governments but not to universities or state agencies.
Left unsaid: It almost certainly would apply to the state’s 50 community college districts.
“Since it doesn’t explicitly exclude us, our understanding is it would apply to us,” Dustin Meador, director of government relations for the Texas Association of Community Colleges, told the Austin American-Statesman. “It’s just assumed that we are a political subdivision” covered by the bill.
That aspect of Senate Bill 3, which hasn’t previously been reported, has community, or junior, college officials concerned. The measure was approved last week by the Senate and sent to the House, where it has yet to be assigned to a committee by House Speaker Joe Straus, who — in contrast to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the upper chamber’s presiding officer — says such legislation would put transgender people at risk and jeopardize the economy.
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House Bill 46 and HB 50, which also seek to limit transgender bathroom policies, likewise face an uphill battle.
Supporters say the legislation is needed to protect the safety and dignity of women in vulnerable situations. Bruce Leslie, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District, said it runs counter to the mission of two-year schools.
“Community colleges, by their mission and purpose, are committed to marginalized people, whether they are economically marginalized or otherwise challenged,” said Leslie, who oversees five colleges in the San Antonio area. “We are open to everybody. We very deliberately met with the transgender community several years ago” and worked out an approach to make private restrooms available as needed. “We’ve had no issues.”
An Austin Community College official also emphasized the nature of junior colleges.
“We are an open institution and want all of our students, faculty and staff to feel welcome, respected and secure,” said Molly Beth Malcolm, ACC’s vice president for community engagement and public affairs. “We are monitoring the legislation. Should it pass and be signed into law, we will work with our ACC community to review what changes, if any, are necessary.”
SB 3 would limit multiple-occupancy restrooms, showers and locker rooms to persons of the same sex as stated on a birth certificate or one of three documents issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety: a driver’s license, personal identification certificate or license to carry a handgun. It also would prohibit student-athletes from participating in activities for female athletes if their birth certificates say they are male.
The measure applies to “political subdivisions, including public school districts, and open-enrollment charter schools.” Political subdivisions aren’t defined in the bill but generally encompass cities, counties and various special-purpose districts in addition to school districts.
Watson, a Democrat from Austin, said the bill’s lack of clarity on exactly which political subdivisions are included is troubling. The measure would become part of Chapter 250 of the Local Government Code, but that chapter also doesn’t define a political subdivision.
However, Chapters 172, 176 and 271 of the Local Government Code say that junior colleges are political subdivisions. Chapter 241, on the other hand, doesn’t include them in the definition.
“We should never pass a bill where the author of the bill can’t tell you to whom it applies,” Watson said.
Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, responded to the Statesman’s query by email: “In deference to Governor Abbott’s special session instructions, which directed lawmakers to work from the language contained in House Bill 2899 from the regular session, Senate Bill 3 left the term ‘political subdivision’ undefined, just as it was in HB 2899 with 80 co-authors. There are several definitions of this term in the law, some of which apply to community colleges. I look forward to working with the House and Governor Abbott on clarifying this legislation as the special session continues.”
HB 2899, which never came up for a vote in committee, would have barred ordinances “to protect a class of persons from discrimination.”
Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a member of the State Affairs Committee, which heard nearly 11 hours of testimony on the bill, said she doesn’t recall any mention of community colleges. “I would be very surprised, and I think some of the other senators would be very surprised, that community colleges would be included,” said Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
If the bill passes and applies to community colleges, “there will be people who choose to go elsewhere because they don’t want to be part of a place that discriminates,” Watson predicted. It would also have an impact on intercollegiate athletics at the two-year schools with such programs, he said.
The National Junior College Athletic Association’s executive committee will convene this month to consider this and similar legislation.
“We want to be sure that we are honoring the values of our national organization and the student-athletes we serve, while also being supportive of the hosts that have worked so hard in providing outstanding experiences for our membership,” said Mark Krug, assistant executive director.