Big Oil, large Houston corporations blast bathroom bills

8:01 p.m Monday, July 31, 2017 Local
Tamir Kalifa
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, speaking at a Capitol news conference on June 6, details the 20 items he wants the Legislature to address in a special legislative session. TAMIR KALIFA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Turning up the volume in what was already the loudest fight of the Legislature’s special session, more than 50 Houston business leaders — including officials of some of the nation’s largest oil companies — sent a letter Monday asking Gov. Greg Abbott to abandon efforts to outlaw transgender-friendly bathrooms in Texas.

The letter, coming from the hometown of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the state’s leading advocate for the legislation, arrived amid growing signs that the crackdown on transgender policies is in trouble in the Texas House.

It also opened a critical week in the special session — one that will be marked by dueling Capitol rallies, with leaders of various religions gathering in opposition Tuesday, the midpoint of the 30-day session, followed by a Thursday rally for supporters that will be led by conservative Christian pastors.

Monday’s letter, part of a gradually building campaign by opponents, urged Abbott to avoid any actions, “including the passage of any ‘bathroom bill,’ that would threaten our continued growth.”

“We support diversity and inclusion, and we believe that any such bill risks harming Texas’ reputation and impacting the state’s economic growth and ability to create new jobs,” the Houston-area leaders wrote.

It’s a familiar argument among opponents of bills to limit transgender-friendly bathroom policies, but Monday’s letter carried extra weight because it was signed by officials of a half-dozen Fortune 500 corporations and a large slice of energy industry that helped propel the state’s economy to such heights.

Signed by top officials for Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, BP America and CenterPoint Energy — as well as Halliburton, Dow Chemical, Siemens and Accenture, among others — the letter also was copied to Patrick and to members of the Texas House.

Similar letters had already arrived from Dallas-area CEOs of AT&T, American Airlines, Texas Instruments and 11 other corporations, as well as the 200-company Austin Technology Council and leaders of 38 Austin tech companies.

Abbott included the transgender bathroom issue among 20 priorities he asked lawmakers to address in the special session, saying it was essential to protecting the privacy and safety of people, particularly women and girls, in intimate settings.

Led by Patrick, the Senate quickly passed its version of the bill last week, with every Republican and one Democrat giving final approval to Senate Bill 3 in a vote taken at 12:15 a.m. Wednesday.

House Speaker Joe Straus, however, has become increasingly vocal in his opposition, saying the efforts are unnecessary, place transgender Texans at risk and jeopardize the economy.

Straus, a San Antonio Republican, may not even refer SB 3 to a committee, leaving it to die untouched by House members.

In addition, the author of two House bills to limit transgender bathroom policies acknowledged Monday that his legislation is at risk.

Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he was promised a public hearing — but nothing more — on his bills by the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana.

“Chairman Cook said he going to give us a hearing. At the same time, he said he’s not going to move the legislation,” Simmons said during a downtown Austin event sponsored by the Texas Tribune.

“I think the prospects are not great, not because the (Republican) majority doesn’t want it … but because there are some key leaders who do not want it. That’s the way the system works,” he said.

Simmons predicted that his bills would pass if given a vote by the full House, and Abbott has been pressing House leaders to allow a floor vote.

Abbott also urged conservative Republicans last week to add their names as co-authors to Simmons’ bills as well as to other legislation pertaining to his special session agenda.

By Monday evening, 49 House Republicans had attached their names to House Bill 46, Simmons’ main piece of legislation. A somewhat similar bill had 80 co-authors — 76 votes ensures passage in the House — in the regular session that ended in May.

The special session bills take different approaches.

SB 3 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, requires public schools and local governments to limit the use of multiple-occupancy restrooms and changing rooms to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, driver’s license or government-issued ID. It also bars student-athletes from competing in girls sports if their birth certificate lists their sex as male.

HB 46 would prohibit schools and local governments from adopting or enforcing anti-discrimination protections that regulate access to multiple-occupancy restrooms, showers and changing facilities. Another Simmons bill, HB 50, would limit the prohibition to public schools and has 22 Republican co-authors.

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