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Texas governor says 'bathroom bill' no longer on his agenda

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas’ Republican governor said on Friday that legislation limiting transgender people’s access to bathrooms in public schools and government buildings is no longer a priority, signaling a slight change in his stance on a measure seen by critics as discriminatory.

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Governor Greg Abbott, who is running for re-election, made a “bathroom bill” one of his priority items in a legislative special session last year. But the measure died in the session after business leaders and civil rights groups fought back, saying it advanced bigotry, would tarnish the state’s image and damage its economy.

“It’s not on my agenda,” Abbott said in a debate with Lupe Valdez, the former sheriff of Dallas County who is the Democratic candidate for governor. Abbott did not say if he would sign a bill if one landed on his desk.

Valdez, the first openly gay or lesbian major party candidate for governor in the history of Texas, has fought against bathroom bills, saying the legislation addresses a non-existent problem and stirs discrimination against transgender people.

“There is a continual fear-mongering, and I don’t believe in laws that start out in fear,” she said in the debate, which is the only debate between the two in a state with an economy bigger than Russia’s.

Abbott has a commanding lead in the polls and a campaign war chest that the Dallas Morning News said was about $50 million larger than what Valdez has.

The Republican-majority Texas legislature meets once every two years, and the next session is set for 2019.

Adoption of a bathroom bill by Texas, the most populous Republican-dominated state, could have fed momentum in other socially conservative states on the issue, a flashpoint in the U.S. culture wars.

Texas could have lost about $5.6 billion through 2026 if it had enacted such a measure, according to the Texas Association of Business, the state’s leading employer grouping.

The measure that advanced the farthest in the 2017 session would have required people to use restrooms, showers and locker rooms in public schools and other state and local government facilities that match the sex on their birth certificate, as opposed to their gender identity.

Momentum for bathroom bills stalled last year nationally when North Carolina partially repealed a similar law in March 2017. The original law prompted boycotts by athletic bodies and businesses that are estimated to have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Leslie Adler