Texas lawmakers should focus on important things like roads and taxes
Better roads, shorter commutes to work - not bathroom bills.
Tax reform that actually cuts property taxes - not petty political feuds.
Common sense public policy - not social issue melodrama spun by the fringe.
I think most of us would choose pragmatic governing in Austin any day over partisan divisiveness.
But it's always nice when you hear a group of elected officials, all conservative Republicans, admit they want it, too.
On Monday, a panel of six county judges representing Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Waller and Galveston counties spoke to a transportation group about the importance of prioritizing road projects and other issues Texans care about over, well, ones we don't.
"We need to raise our voices because, honestly, the bathroom issue, that's just the squirrel running at the top of the room to keep everybody's attention off the real issues like school finance and transportation," Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta told the crowd gathered in a hotel ballroom for a meeting of the Transportation Advocacy Group, or TAG, which seeks to educate the public about the Houston area's growing mobility challenges.
Sebesta told the group that people in his county are fed up with commutes to the Texas Medical Center that take 15 minutes during the day but more than an hour during rush hour, and he said some have opted to move.
"If we can't move goods, products and people around, we will choke on our own success," Sebesta said. "It's as simple as that."
Most of us, regardless of ideology, would agree with that sentiment. Most of us know that transportation, education and health care are the kinds of issues that truly affect our lives each day.
So why does the Legislature spend so much time on other stuff? On limiting women's right to abortion, on misleading ploys to put public money in private schools, on the bathroom bill, which would have prevented transgender Texans from using the facilities they deem appropriate?
Falling by the wayside
The fight over the bathroom bill brought legislation to a halt and even spurred Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session at taxpayer expense. He didn't do that for roads. He did that for bathrooms. Or, more aptly, for a small but loud group of Republican primary voters and special interest groups.
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the emotion of these fights over social issues - and certainly, that's the point of them! - that we don't question the relevance of the policies in our daily lives. We spend time and energy and taxpayer money debating the merits, the morals, the legality, the economic impact of regulating somebody's bathroom use, but we don't stop to ask ourselves what, in the meantime, is falling by the wayside.
What truly vital priorities of this state are being neglected while we watch the squirrel?
For too long, the Legislature has failed to accomplish badly needed school finance reform, passing the burden off on local entities. For too long, they've underfunded transportation, turning to debt and accounting tricks instead of fiscally sound policies that speed up projects. For too long, they've failed to reform an unfair, lopsided tax system too reliant on property taxes.
The manufacturers of these divisive social issues - these weapons of mass distraction, if you will - control the message, and dominate debates with bogus arguments that, say, the bathroom bill will make us safer, that it's really about protecting women and children, that it will deter sexual predators. We're inundated with misleading statistics and counterarguments.
We get to where we can no longer see the law for the bathroom stall.
Is it important to you?
But what if we didn't so easily succumb to the manipulation?
What if the next time somebody raises the bathroom issue in the Texas Legislature, which, surely, they will, we didn't yell about discrimination or the lessons of the economic impact of the bill in North Carolina?
What if we yelled "roads!"?
"Bathrooms!" they'd say.
"Roads!" we would repeat. Or "schools!" if you prefer.
This is basically the strategy suggested at that transportation meeting by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.
"If infrastructure is your major priority," Emmett told the crowd, "then you have to make sure people know that's your major priority, because I guarantee you those people (for whom) bathrooms are their major priority are telling them, 'We're not going to vote for you again unless you do this with the bathrooms.'"
"Until you get ready to do that on transportation," he said, "nothing's going to change."
Until Texans demand that lawmakers and state leaders focus on the important stuff, all we will get is squirrels.