Lee Keeling

Lee Keeling

What a difference a biennium makes. If the Texas Senate had had its way in 2017, we’d all be wearing laminated miniatures of our birth certificates on lanyards around our necks to gain admittance to our prescribed potty facilities. Last session was all about regulating who could go where and making sure there were no extraneous choices to confuse anybody.

Recall 2017’s theatrics: At the end of the regular session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick threatened to withhold Senate approval of legislation saving certain agencies from extinction due to sunset legislation if the real governor didn’t call a special session to pass his bathroom bill. Gov. Greg Abbott convened a special session to consider 19 initiatives (including bathrooms) that didn’t have the legs to get out of the regular session, but only if the Senate first passed the sunset measure. Patrick’s lavatory jihad met its Waterloo (sorry, couldn’t resist that) when the House – which had largely lost interest in telling everybody where to pee during the regular session – gaveled out with 27 hours left on the clock.

Early this session, some tried to resurrect conservative anger over the continued possibility that the plumbing of users may not match that of the facilities being used, but the state GOP leadership – sensing it might be this sort of thing that gave them whittled-down majorities this time around – wisely disregarded those voices. With scarcely a word from anybody about bathrooms, the legislature seemed focused more on traditional legislative subjects and less on culture battles. The back-slapping about “transformative” progress on public schools and property taxes had already begun as the session’s last hours ticked off the clock. But a little disagreement arose about – wait for it – sunset legislation.

Specifically, the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners faced sunset review. Legislation was being considered that would transfer its duties to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which already oversees licensing of several other professions. If this passed, the plumbing board would be allowed to expire and ride off into sunset review.

There was an issue, though, as to whether this should occur sooner or later. Earlier in the session, the House considered a bill in which the transfer would occur after this session, in 2020.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson offered an amendment delaying the transfer until after the 2021 session. A conference committee had rejected her amendment, and the bill was back before the House on Sunday night before the session’s end.

That night, Rep. Thompson colorfully argued that her constituents hadn’t been calling recently to say “they got poop running out of their house and all over the streets” and she challenged the other lawmakers in the body to let her know if theirs had. Evidently, nobody spoke up. But somebody was keeping an eye on the clock. Figuring that sunsetting the plumbing board was a battle best fought another day, Representative Chris Paddie urged the members to go ahead and vote down the bill.

Paddie said assuredly – after all, he’s vice chair of the Sunset Advisory Committee – that the plumbing board would be rescued from immediate demise by the “safety net,” legislation routinely proposed when the legislature is thinking about transferring the job of an agency facing sunset to another agency. The safety net bill recognizes that the job of the sunsetting agency still needs to be done, but that if the transferring legislation doesn’t pass, the original agency needs to remain. The safety net gives the original agency a reprieve, kicking its sunset date down the road so the next legislature can deal with it.

Unfortunately, Paddie was wrong. The safety net bill had already died. Though he later tried to get the House to take a mulligan, Paddie’s efforts were unavailing and the state Board of Plumbing Examiners, along with its venerable plumbing code, slipped from his fingers into the abyss of history. As he put it (or should have), “we are all licensed plumbers now.”

You might be forgiven for failing to sense the tectonic political shift taking place over the last two years beneath our very feet. Texas, in 2017, on the verge of enacting legislation prescribing what kinds of bathrooms are approved for use, which of us are to use which kind, and what credentials we must exhibit at the door, has seemingly suffered a libertarian epiphany, and fully deregulated – not only bathrooms – but plumbing altogether.

I didn’t see it coming, either, but Karma goes to the bathroom wherever he/she wants to.

Lee Keeling’s career as a spin class instructor was recently abbreviated. Good thing he still practices law. You can email him at lee.keeling@gmail.com.

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