Legislative Democrats Win a Temporary Victory on the Transgender School Bathroom Issue

Utah State Capitol 06It didn’t take long for Utah GOP legislative leaders to prove themselves right for taking away the Democrats’ equal representation on a key legislative committee.

If fact, it took less than two months – culminating Tuesday afternoon in a showdown in the Legislative Management Committee.

Oh, what a difference a single vote can mean.

The minority party contingent on the LMC, led by Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake – a man who later drew laughs when he said he likes TV cameras (and, boy, does he) – took a stand on the already-very-controversial Obama administration letter telling all local school districts they need to provide gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender students.

If Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe, had been present, the GOP leaders would have been able to roll the Democrats – for in the 2016 Legislature a Democrat-hated bill passed giving the House Speaker and Senate President extra votes to break a tie in the equal-numbered Legislative Management Committee.

But Okerlund was gone, so Senate Democrats outnumbered Republican senators by one vote – meaning there couldn’t be a tie vote – meaning House Speaker Greg Hughes and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser wouldn’t get the chance to break the tie vote on language giving the Education Interim Committee the assignment to review the Obama letter and study impacts on Utah schools, i.e. general neutral bathrooms.

Niederhauser made a motion only to assign the Education Committee to review the Obama letter – which likely would lead to Obama-bashing, threats of lawsuits and such.

GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, facing a tough June primary, has already said Utah won’t abide by the transgender-demand Obama letter.

Dabakis and the Democrats wanted to add transgender bullying, especially the effect on grade-school children.

That would broaden the scope beyond just Obama-bashing – as Dabakis hinted at – to “really helping” these gender-challenged children.

Niederhauser, R-Sandy, and Hughes, R-Draper, who are co-chairs of the LMC, literally put their heads together as the acrimonious intra-committee debate went forward.

Niederhauser – lacking the needed GOP Senate vote – modified his motion to include looking at impacts on transgender students. Dabakis accepted it, and the motion passed to instruct the Education Interim Committee to take up the matter in the months ahead.

UtahPolicy asked Niederhauser after the meeting what the missing GOP vote meant to the management committee action.

“In truth, if (Okerlund) had been present, I would have passed my original motion” without any reference to transgender kids – meaning the new tie-vote powers of Hughes and Niederhauser would have been used.

But, Niederhauser told UtahPolicy, just because the motion including language about studying impacts of bullying on transgender students passed, it doesn’t mean “my original intent” language won’t be what really happens in the Education Interim Study Committee action.

In other words, the Senate chair of that committee, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, and House chair, Rep Brad Last, R-Hurricane, may be told by GOP legislative leaders to go heavy on the Obama-letter impact on local schools, states rights and such, and go easy on study of transgender students and their problems with bullying and bathroom use.

Dabakis, who sits on the Education Interim Committee, could sense he was pushing the majority, saying he hoped Utah lawmakers could look beyond problems with federal mandates on local education and try to “find a unique Utah solution” to the problems of transgender students, especially grade school kids who are already struggling with their own identities and bullying from peers.

He gave the example of a third-grade boy who likes to wear feminine blouses to school, and was cornered in the boys’ bathroom by bullies who demanded to see if he was wearing girl’s underpants, too.

“The school officials told him to basically ‘man up’ and take it,” said Dabakis. “They did nothing.”

And it should be that kind of callous indifference by school officials that should be studied by the Legislature, not necessarily Obama’s Title IX anti-discrimination order on transgender school restrooms, said Dabakis, the only openly-gay member of the Legislature.

The displeasure on some of the faces of the GOP majority LMC members was evident.

It likely was a temporary win for the Democrats, at the very least.

One may recall that the original bill by Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, concerning the LMC membership split, called for an extra Republican leader from the House and Senate to sit on the LMC – clearly giving an extra vote to the majority party.

It was amended in the Senate as a small salve to the Democrats to say there would still be equal party membership on the LMC, but in a case of a tie vote in the House and Senate, the speaker and president would break the tie vote in both houses.

Since Okerlund was absent Tuesday, Hughes could have broken a tie vote in the House, but Niederhauser’s original motion would have failed along party lines in the Senate. And so it would have failed in the LMC and the Education Committee wouldn’t have been authorized to study impacts of the Obama letter.

Niederhauser had to change his motion to include transgender bullying study in the Education Committee.

But the GOP chairs of all legislative committees set committee agendas, conduct meetings, and decide what will and won’t be discussed.

Niederhauser’s motion still says the public will be able to weigh in on transgender restrooms in public schools, Utah’s all GOP federal congressional delegation will be asked to testify before the Education Committee to give their views on Obama’s letter (and you can guess how that will go), and impacts on schools – like losing some federal monies — will go forward.

Will there be much discussion during this summer’s interim about transgender bullying and the student’s needs?

Stay tuned.

But don’t be surprised if Christensen or some other Republican in the 2017 Legislature revisits the make-up of the Legislative Management Committee – and the majority Republicans give themselves one more vote from the Senate and the House in what used to be an equally-constituted committee.