Which teenagers can play on their high school girls volleyball team and when Texans should be able to cast early ballots were among the hot-button issues state lawmakers considered Friday at a Senate committee hearing.
The Senate State Affairs Committee became a kind of staging ground for cultural and political squabbles that have engulfed the Legislature as lawmakers took up a proposal to bar transgender athletes from participating in school sports based on their gender identity and a passel of bills meant to tighten or limit election practices and beef up election fraud provisions.
The Senate election bills, in particular, had proven so electric that hearings on them or their House counterparts had twice led to delays this week of lawmaker consideration.
But the transgender bill reawakened the divisive “bathroom bill” debate that overwhelmed the 2017 legislative session, opening the way for a new cultural fight.
“You can pretty much guarantee a biological male has physical advantages over females,” Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said in laying out his bill, which requires “athletes to compete in sports associated with their biological sex as determined at or near birth.”
Perry said his Senate Bill 29 is about safety and that people born male playing in women’s sports “may deny female athletes recognition of their hard work.”
A flood of witnesses, most of them opposed to the bill, spent the afternoon taking up those claims.
Charlie Apple, a 17-year-old from Corpus Christi, told the committee that when he transitioned to living as a man, he was made to feel “isolated and unsure of my future.”
Wrestling, however, “greatly changed that,” he said.
‘Bathroom bill 2.0’:Effort to bar transgender athletes in Texas schools gets hearing
“I was given support and encouragement from my coaches and treated with dignity by my teammates. I was wasn’t treated as an abnormality or as dangerous.
“This ban will hurt children like me,” he said.
His mother, Adair Apple, also testified against the bill. “Texas doesn’t need another bathroom bill. Getting kids vaccinated before next fall should be the focus,” she said, referring to a COVID-19 vaccine for older children that could be available by the fall.
But Bob Green, the parent of three adult children, including one who played volleyball in Austin public schools, said: “I can’t imagine my daughter playing on a volleyball team, and maybe having to go up to net and see some 6’8″ guy across the net from her. I definitely don’t want to see a guy playing in little spandex shorts — plus the locker room situation, the restroom situation.”
The bill moved Beto O’Rourke, former Democratic presidential candidate who had come to Austin to speak chiefly against the Republican voter bills, to testify: “Bills like these, even the effort, causes undue anxiety, distress, and depression in the lives of kids, and even suicide and death. That cannot have been the intent.”
Texas tackles ‘voter integrity’
Earlier, Republican lawmakers laid out their election integrity bills — election suppression bills in the mouths of Democrats.
The legislation, should it make it into law, is likely destined for protracted court hearings.
But for now, the Republicans senators used words like “simple” and “transparency” to describe their efforts.
“Keeping voter integrity is paramount to an election so that everyone can have trust in the results,” said Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, while explaining his legislation, which he said is meant to require uniformity in the way elections are handled across the state including allowing polls to open only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., blocking cities from running 24-hour polling places, and ensuring that rural and city voters have equal opportunities to vote.
Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the committee chairman seconded that sentiment in laying out his SB 7. If voters “don’t trust the process,” he said, “they’ll stop participating.”
SB 7 would ban counties from proactively sending out vote-by-mail applications; prevent early voting sites from staying open after 7 p.m.; and require an application for a mail ballot on the grounds of disability to include written documentation from the U.S. Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or a certificate from a licensed physician, chiropractor or Christian Science practitioner.
Some of the legislation that came before the committee Friday included stronger efforts to verify the citizenship of registered voters and penalize county officials who fail to remove ineligible voters from the rolls.
Opponents say bills are creating ‘new barriers’ for Texas voters
Opponents of the bills say the legislation is part of a wider Republican effort to limit voting opportunities for those most likely to support Democrats.
Polls also show most Republican voters believe election improprieties are widespread, fueled by former President Donald Trump’s continued but unsupported claims that his November defeat was the result of fraud.
Other Republican legislation would require that voting machinery be wholly manufactured in the U.S. and give the attorney general broad authority to investigate and prosecute participants in get-out-the-vote campaigns.
“Proud to be laying out #SB1340 this morning,” Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, wrote on Twitter. “This bill would clean out voter rolls of non citizens, dead voters, and felons ineligible to vote. Texans deserve to know only eligible citizens are voting in our elections.”
Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, pushed back: “Are we looking for reasons to reject ballots, or are we looking for reasons to accept ballots?”
But Rodney Ellis, a former Democratic state senator from Houston who is now a Harris County commissioner, said, “We should be making voting more accessible, not rolling back progress by creating new barriers.”
Wading into yet another charged issue, the committee on Friday also took up a proposal to bar governmental entities from entering into financial agreements with a professional sports franchise unless the agreement includes language that the United States national anthem will be played at the beginning of each team sporting event.
“Just like our flag is a symbol of freedom, our national anthem is a symbol of freedom,” said Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels.
At one point, a witness testifying in favor of the bill led lawmakers and committee audience members in an impromptu group rendition of the national anthem.