Bathroom bill hits Senate stall; labeled ‘mean-spirited’ by Obama spokesman

By Erik Schelzig & Sheila Burke, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The sponsor of a Tennessee transgender bathroom bill told a Senate committee Tuesday that he has to consider a state attorney general’s opinion before going forward. The move came the same day the White House called the proposal “mean-spirited.”

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, told the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee that he wanted another day to consider an opinion that State Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued Monday that said federal education funding could be placed at risk if the measure becomes law. A fiscal analysis said the bill could cost the state more than $1.2 billion in federal money for K-12 and higher education.

“I’m still trying to digest and understand the impact of the attorney general’s opinion,” Bell said.

Bell said he wanted to bring the bill back up Wednesday but Sen. Bo Watson, R-Chattanooga, and the vice chairman of the finance committee, warned that the projected cost of the bill will likely cause it to be placed among unfunded bills to be considered after the budget has passed. Those bills often don’t become law unless sponsors find a way to eliminate the cost or find a source of funding.

The bill would require students in public grade schools and universities to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender at birth.

It is part of a wave of legislation across the country that opponents say is discriminatory toward gay, bisexual and transgender people. Supporters say Tennessee’s bathroom bill protects the rights of everyone.

A White House spokesman criticized Tennessee’s proposed law and similar ones in other states during a press briefing.

“The administration is firmly committed to promoting and defending (the) equal rights of all Americans, including LGBT Americans,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. “Specific laws like this that seek to target and marginalize one small segment of the population is nothing less than mean spirited.”

“States like Tennessee and, to a certain extent North Carolina and Mississippi, have a long history over the last couple of generations of working through questions of civil rights. President Obama has talked on a number of occasions about the important progress that our country has made with regard to civil rights.

“This is a good illustration that … the fight for civil rights is not over and demanding equality for every American and ensuring those Americans are not singled out or targeted because of their sex or their race or what their last name is or their religion or who they love or who they are is a struggle that continues and the president, every time, is going to be on the side of equality and fairness and justice for every American.”

Bell disagreed with the characterization of his bill.

“This is not about equal rights or civil rights — it is about special rights,” he said in an emailed statement. “It is not surprising that the Obama administration in their own words is ‘promoting and defending’ this action, while ignoring the safety and privacy of young women and girls.”

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters that he considers the statements out of the White House “sort of immaterial to the debate” at the state Capitol.

“At the end of the day, it will be a Tennessee decision,” Haslam said. “It will be decided in the Legislature, and obviously we’ll get to decide whether we sign it.”

The transgender bathroom bill has already generated backlash from some in the business community, and Haslam has raised concerns that the measure could cost the state money if it becomes law.

In several states, major businesses and sports organizations — including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Walt Disney Co., the NFL and the NCAA — have joined lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists in raising concerns that similar measures could legalize discrimination. CMT, the Nashville-based cable station that features country music videos and other TV entertainment, and parent company Viacom have come out against the bill.