(This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman on December 6)
Setting the stage for one of the most contentious debates awaiting next year’s legislative session, the state’s leading business group released a report Tuesday warning that bills targeting gay and transgender rights could severely hinder the Texas economy.
The Texas Association of Business study concluded that, if passed, such proposed laws could cost the state economy up to $8.5 billion a year and threaten 185,000 jobs. The state’s travel and tourism industry would be particularly hard hit by canceled sporting events and conventions, the study said.
“These are conservative projections based on hard data that tracks what is happening in other states,” Chris Wallace, president of the business group, said during a Capitol news conference.
“Protecting Texas from billions of dollars in losses is simple: Don’t pass unnecessary laws that discriminate against Texans and our visitors,” Wallace said. “We cannot slam the door on the Texas miracle of openness, competitiveness, economic opportunity and innovation.”
With its economic impact study and Tuesday’s promise to vigorously lobby against bills targeting gay and transgender rights, the Texas Association of Business — typically a strong supporter of GOP initiatives — has placed itself in direct opposition to many of the Legislature’s most socially conservative Republican leaders, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
With the legislative session set to begin Jan. 10, Republican lawmakers have proposed banning transgender-friendly bathrooms; repealing city ordinances that protect gay, lesbian and transgender residents from housing and employment discrimination; and allowing businesses, individuals and government employees to refuse to serve gay couples based on religious opposition to same-sex marriage.
Patrick, in particular, has made it one of his top 10 legislative priorities to pass a bill that would stop transgender Texans from using bathrooms and locker rooms that conform to their gender identity.
A Patrick spokesman called the study “misinformation and fear-mongering” over a bill that has yet to be filed.
“In fact, the Women’s Privacy and Business Protection Act that the lieutenant governor intends to support will assure that sexual predators, like those who exploit the internet, will not be able to freely enter women’s restrooms, locker rooms or showers and that businesses are not forced by local ordinances to allow men in women’s restrooms and locker rooms,” spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.
A phone and internet survey of 626 Texas voters, commissioned by Patrick’s campaign committee in early November, found that 69 percent supported “passing a state law that would make it illegal for men to enter in a public women’s restroom, locker room or shower in order to assure women have privacy and can feel safe.”
That support wasn’t affected by fears of boycotts or economic impact, Patrick’s survey found.
But, pointing to the economic impact study conducted by St. Edward’s University for the business association, Wallace said proposed legislation targeting transgender and gay Texans would make it difficult to recruit and retain talented workers to Texas and discourage small and large businesses from relocating or expanding in the state.
“We now face overwhelming data about the risk of damage to the economy and reputation of our great state resulting from legislation that would allow for discrimination,” he said.
The success of the state’s technology industry, which tends to attract workers who favor inclusion, is particularly susceptible to laws that can be viewed as discriminatory, said Caroline Joiner, executive director of Texas for TechNet, a network of the nation’s leading senior tech executives.
“It is not overexaggerating to say that the tech community in Texas is locked in a war for talent, competing globally to attract and retain the best and brightest,” Joiner said during the Capitol news conference. “For our long-term growth and competitiveness, Texas employers cannot afford to give workers a reason to look elsewhere.”
Duff Stewart, chief executive of the Austin-based GSD&M advertising company, said the legislative proposals would harm his business and others like it.
“Should Texas be perceived as a hostile work environment, it would hinder our ability to attract and retain the kind of talent that makes up our unique city and allows us to deliver the creativity that we do,” he said.
The Texas Association of Business, which bills itself as the state’s chamber of commerce and includes more than 2,800 member businesses, also unveiled the Keep Texas Open for Business coalition of companies that will lead opposition to “discriminatory” bills.
The 15-member coalition, with more expected to join, includes Apple, IBM, Intel and Celanese Corp.