Public bathroom debate moves to rules committee

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, June 8, 2016 8:01pm
  • Local News

The next round in the battle on access to public bathrooms will be waged Thursday in Yakima.

That’s when an obscure legislative committee that rarely meets will hear challenges to the state rule allowing transgender people to use the public bathroom of the gender they identify with — which may not be the one assigned to them at birth.

Known as the Joint Administrative Rules Review Committee, its eight members, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate, last met in February to learn, among other things, the purpose of the panel and the extent of its powers.

Thursday is their first test of 2016 when they consider a request from 29 members of the House Republican Caucus to suspend the rule crafted by the Human Rights Commission that became law late last year.

Commissioners drafted the rule as a further interpretation of the state’s 2006 law barring discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation. The rule says people must be allowed to use gender-segregated places that match their gender identity, such as bathrooms.

Several school districts in Snohomish County already have put policies in place for transgender students and the federal Department of Education recently issued a directive saying all public schools should be considering such steps.

But there’s been an outburst of opposition. House Republicans submitted their request to the committee Feb. 19 and there’s an effort to get an initiative on the ballot this fall to repeal the rule.

What Republicans filed is not a run-of-the-mill whine about a bunch of uncrossed Ts and undotted Is.

It is a 12-page legal brief detailing alleged bureaucratic offenses. It was created by a cadre of lawmakers who couldn’t muster the political support to get rid of the rule themselves earlier this year.

These GOP lawmakers contend an appointed board like the Human Rights Commission shouldn’t be drafting and enacting such rules. They also contend the commission, in this case, didn’t follow all the required procedures, including providing adequate public review, before adoption.

They argue the 2006 nondiscrimination law applied to jobs, housing and other matters, but not places historically segregated by gender, such as bathrooms.

The commission, they conclude, “attempted to promulgate a rule that is unreasonable, unworkable and unconstitutional. It did so, either with intent or with gross negligence, while engaged in a three-year debacle of agency overreach and a rule-making process that is the poster child for lack of government transparency.”

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, signed first. The rest of the House Republicans in Snohomish County’s delegation — Reps. Mark Harmsworth, of Mill Creek, Elizabeth Scott, of Monroe, Dave Hayes, of Camano Island, and Norma Smith, of Clinton — signed, too.

Hayes, who works for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, said he disagreed with the process and wonders what problem the rule solved.

“In my mind, this rule complicates a matter more than it needs to be,” he said. “There is no way I can support a law that makes it easier for people to be preyed upon. The rule that became law is so broad that it could potentially make it easier for a woman or child to be victimized.”

Supporters counter such incidents haven’t occurred. And, as far as the commission process, it had its wrinkles but it took place in public and there’s no reason to retrace any steps.

The Joint Administrative Rules Review Committee can consider if the rule is in line with the intent of existing laws and if commissioners followed all the requisite steps. If a majority determines something wasn’t done right, there are options ranging from getting the commission to make changes, getting Gov. Jay Inslee to suspend the rule or recommending lawmakers repeal it.

Spoiler alert: This is a highly politicized issue and the committee has equal numbers of members from each party, which likely means they won’t agree on any harsh actions.

In other words, this round of the bathroom battle could be a draw.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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