In Texas, it's businesses vs. the bathroom bill

Money talks, especially when it's potentially lost profits for nervous businesses. Less than six months ago, legislators in North Carolina repealed a law that restricted bathroom access for transgender people -- after the state's business leaders howled about an economic hit pegged at $630 million

Now, businesses in Texas are worried that legislators there are going to make the same mistake, which could cost the Lone Star State $5.6 billion through 2026. And they're making their feelings known.

Still, that didn't stop the Texas State Senate from passing a bill on Tuesday that would require transgender Texans to use the bathroom that matches their birth certificates rather than their gender identity. It also would strike down local Texas laws that protect the right of transgenders to use the bathrooms of their choice. 

Leading the opposition to this bill are Fortune 500 companies based in Texas, such as AT&T (T), Dell, Kimberly-Clark (KMB), Southwest Airlines (LUV) and Texas Instruments (TXN). All have spoken out against the bill, as have Democrats and civil rights groups.

More than a dozen Texas corporate leaders, such as Doug Parker of American Airlines (AAL), AT&T's Randall Stephenson, Kimberly-Clark's Thomas Clark, Gary Kelly of Southwest Airlines and Texas Instrument's Richard K. Templeton, argued in a letter sent last week to Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker of the House Joe Straus that the bill would "seriously hurt the state's ability to attract new businesses, investment, and jobs."  

IBM (IBM), which employs 100,000 in Texas, took out ads in state newspapers denouncing the bill and has indicated that it would reconsider both its current and future investments in the state. Tech titan Michael Dell, whose Dell Technologies is based in Round Rock, Texas, has denounced the legislation on social media.   

Other Fortune 500 companies including Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB) and Microsoft (MSFT) have also spoken out against the Texas bathroom bill.

Social conservatives including Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick, who oversees the state Senate, argue that the legislation is needed to protect women from being attacked in bathrooms -- an argument Texas police chiefs, among others, have rejected. The legislation now is pending before the Texas House of Representatives, where Speaker Straus opposes the bill.

"This has all been primarily been driven by Lt. Gov. Patrick," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. The reason, said Jones, is that as Patrick runs for reelection, he wants to "burnish" his credentials among social conservatives who are a key constituency in the March Republican primary. "He has accomplished that goal even if the legislation does not become law."

As it stands now, Jones doesn't expect the bathroom bill to come up for a vote in the House because Speaker Straus can use the opposition of businesses to help win the support of members who may be on the fence on the issue.  

"I am sure right now," said Jones, "that the Speaker is extracting promises from all those businesses leaders who are speaking publicly that if [challengers] try to use the failure of this bill to pass against any of his allies in the Texas House in the primary, that the business community will be there with their checkbooks." 

Indeed, Steven Hotze, publisher of the Conservative Republicans of Texas News, predicted on his website that Straus' supporters will lose primary challenges "because they support the demands of perverted, so called 'transgender' men over the need to protect the privacy and safety of women and girls."

According to the Keep Texas Open for Business coalition, more than 80 organizations have told local officials that they would cancel current projects in the state if bathroom fill is enacted. Among the events that might be affected are the 2018 NCAA Final Four basketball championship scheduled to be held in San Antonio.

In addition, the Texas Association of Business has made the possible loss of the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft a focal point of its recent ad campaign against the legislation.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.