Business groups tell Texas lawmakers: Reject ‘bathroom bill’

  • Bob Sechler
  • American-Statesman Staff
July 17, 2017
Phil Gilbert, IBM’s global head of design, joins other Texas business and tourism representatives demonstrating outside the state Capitol on Monday to urge lawmakers not to approve bills to regulate transgender bathroom access. They contend such laws would be discriminatory and have a negative impact on the state’s economy.

Scrapped corporate expansions and relocations. Discontinued national conventions and conferences. Canceled sporting events and concerts.

Those are the economic consequences Texas lawmakers are risking if they approve legislation regulating where transgender people can use the bathroom during the special session of the Texas Legislature that begins on Tuesday, according to corporate executives, business lobbyists and tourism officials.

“State-sponsored discrimination has very severe economic consequences,” said Jeff Moseley, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, during a rally Monday morning on the steps of the state Capitol.

Business and technology groups have been mounting a public-relations and lobbying push over the issue in the days leading up to the special session, after watching much of their economic agenda take a backseat to social issues important to Republican primary voters during the regular Texas legislative session that ended in May.

More than a dozen corporate executives employing thousands of Texans — including the chiefs of American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, AT&T, BNSF Railway, Texas Instruments, Kimberly-Clark and Tenet Healthcare — sent a joint letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday, saying the proposed law will hurt the state’s ability to compete economically.

“This legislation threatens our ability to attract and retain the best talent in Texas, as well as the greatest sporting and cultural attractions in the world,” the letter said. It also said the business executives are concerned “the so-called ‘bathroom bill’ that the Texas Legislature is considering would seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investment and jobs.”

Supporters of the bathroom bill — including Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans — say such economic claims are overblown. They say legislation requiring transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to their biological gender — and not the gender with which they identify — is needed to protect women and girls from men who could prey upon them in women’s bathrooms.

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, did not address specifics of the executives’ joint letter on Monday but said businesses relocate to Texas because the state has a good economic climate. Abbott set the agenda for the special legislative session that begins on Tuesday, including a call for the proposed bathroom legislation.

“The business reality is far different than the press narrative,” Wittman said. “The recently released CEO magazine list for best states to do business once again has Texas on the top. The truth is that businesses look at what is best for their bottom line, and Texas is that place” because of low taxes and other business-friendly policies.

Regardless, state tourism officials said during Monday’s rally that an estimated $66 million in various conventions statewide have been canceled this year because of what they term discriminatory legislation approved during the regular session — such as an anti-“sanctuary cities bill” allowing police to inquire about the immigration status of detainees — as well as fears of the bathroom bill. Another $1.7 billion in the convention pipeline could be lost if the bathroom bill is approved, they said.

IBM, which deployed a number of executives and a contingent of employees to the rally on Monday, took out full-page advertisements Sunday in several of the state’s major newspapers, including the American-Statesman, to object to the proposed bathroom law. IBM employs about 10,000 people in the state.

“As one of the largest technology employers in Texas, IBM firmly opposes any measure that would harm the state’s LGBT+ community and make it difficult for businesses to attract and retain talented Texans,” the ad said. “We urge Governor Abbott and the state legislature to abandon any discriminatory legislation during this special session and ensure Texas remains a welcoming place to live and work.”

Phil Gilbert, IBM’s Austin-based global head of design, said Monday that the outcome of the debate over the bathroom bill is likely to play a role in his company’s ongoing willingness to hold seminars and training sessions in Texas for its worldwide workforce.

“We will have to consider the wishes of our employees about where those meetings will be held,” Gilbert said.

He hinted that the fate of the bathroom bill could have implications as well for more far-reaching IBM decisions, saying the prevalence of what the company considers to be discriminatory laws in a particular location “certainly impacts the criterion by which we make investment decisions.”