Bathroom bills put Texas at risk, business leaders tell Straus panel

6:51 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 Texas News & Politics

Texas faces a challenging and expensive list of demands if the state is to remain an economic powerhouse, but the fight over transgender bathroom policies repeatedly crept into the conversation when House Speaker Joe Straus’ competitiveness committee held its opening hearing Wednesday.

With leading conservatives vowing to continue making bathroom regulations a priority, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and other business leaders said the issue is putting Texas at risk of long-term economic harm, discouraging companies from relocating and some of the “best and brightest” workers from moving to the state.

“Some of the political positions, particularly the bathroom bills, are going to cost us businesses, are going to prevent businesses such as Amazon from moving here,” Cuban said. “If they move to a state that has positions that are contrary to a significant percentage of their employees, that creates management problems for them. To them, there’s no reason to take on those headaches.”

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Although a bathroom bill failed to pass this year, the subject comes up frequently when talking to national and international business leaders, Cuban told the Texas House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness.

“The basic conversation is, ‘What the hell are you guys doing down there?’ I mean, who’s peeking under the stalls?” said Cuban, a billionaire investor and entrepreneur. “The energy, excitement, creativity, manpower here is just phenomenal. Why would we do anything to screw that up?”

Fred Humphries, corporate vice president for Microsoft, said his company opposed the Texas bathroom bills because discrimination is “bad for people and bad for business.”

“Look at our customer base; we do business all over the world. When we see anything that has to do with discrimination, we are quite frankly active on it,” Humphries said. “It’s a factor when it comes to competitiveness.”

For social and religious conservatives, the tone of Wednesday’s hearing verified their concerns that the committee was formed by Straus — a vocal opponent of bills targeting transgender-friendly bathrooms — to continue attacks on the proposed legislation by a committee of four moderate Republicans and three Democrats.

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Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, questioned the committee’s credibility, noting that it heard testimony only from invited witnesses and denied him the opportunity to question witnesses — a courtesy commonly granted to House members during Capitol committee hearings.

“I do believe that good social policy also makes good economic policy, but this committee appears to be nothing more than a political tool rather than an actual investigation on the impact of policies on our economy,” Rinaldi said.

Conservative leaders called a morning news conference to say that a bathroom bill remains a priority.

Tony McDonald, general counsel for Empower Texans, said this year’s legislative fights over abortion and privacy in bathrooms made one thing clear to him.

“These conflicts are not petty political squabbles but a fight between good and evil,” McDonald said. “On one side are decent Americans, decent Texans who simply want to raise up their families in truth and in prosperity and in peace.”

On the other side, he said, are two groups — predators who want to prey on children “and another group, who Joseph Stalin called useful idiots, who are willing and able to accommodate the worst evils imaginable.”

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Although often straying into the transgender bathroom fight, the committee also heard testimony about the need to increase investment and attention in a number of areas, including:

• Education: Tom Luce, a prominent Texas lawyer, said most future jobs will require at least 14 years of education, but only 20 percent of current high school graduates get a college degree or national certificate. “We need to be at 80 percent,” he said.

Cuban pressed for more top-tier universities and improved educational opportunities in Texas. “Until we build up schools, from pre-K through universities, we need to import the best and brightest workers” so businesses have an adequate pool of job candidates, he said.

• Financial incentives: Although more libertarian-minded Republicans deride tax breaks as corporate welfare, Ross Perot Jr. said the incentives are crucial to attracting large corporations to move or expand in Texas. “As long as other states offer incentives, we have to,” said Perot, chairman of the Perot Group. “It’s the rules that we play under.”

• Infrastructure: From roads to rural broadband Internet access to improvements that can mitigate damage from future hurricanes, the costs will be high but crucial to remaining economically competitive, several speakers said.

The committee will have a second and final hearing Dec. 5 before issuing its report to the House one week later, said its chairman, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana.