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Stadium exemption in "bathroom bill" won’t be enough, opponents say

An exemption for stadiums and convention centers in Texas' "bathroom bill" may not be enough to avoid economic fallout in the state, opponents warn.

AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home to the Dallas Cowboys, on October 25, 2016.

As more critics are speaking out against Texas’ “bathroom bill,” concerns about the legislation have largely echoed the anxiety that fueled the economic fallout in North Carolina when it passed similar legislation.

Citing any laws that are “discriminatory or inconsistent with our values,” the NFL recently raised the prospect that the legislation could impact whether Texas gets future Super Bowls.

Raising concerns about the safety of fans, crews and fellow artists, more than 135 actors and singers — some of whom are set to tour in Texas — came out in opposition to the legislation.

Saying those worries are unfounded, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has underscored that the measure he’s championing is different from North Carolina’s law. Among the distinctions that Patrick points to in Senate Bill 6: It includes an exemption from Texas’ bathroom policies for some stadiums, convention centers and entertainment centers.

But in the shadow of the millions of dollars in lost tourism-related revenue in North Carolina, opponents of the Texas bill warn that perception trumps specifics when it comes to business and that the exemption may not prevent Texas from feeling the economic repercussions that riddled the Tar Heel State.

“We have discussed that with our meeting planners and sports organizers — they don’t care about the nuances,” said Visit Dallas CEO Phillip Jones, whose group is among a coalition of Texas tourism bureaus and commerce chambers organizing in opposition to SB 6. “Perception is reality, and if there's a perception that there's a discrimination taking place in Texas that's sanctioned by the state as a result of this bill, they will bypass Texas.”

SB 6 would restrict bathroom and locker room use in public schools and government buildings to be based on “biological sex,” and it would override portions of local anti-discrimination ordinances meant to provide transgender Texans protections from discrimination in public bathrooms and other facilities.

But while the bill would require government entities to set bathroom policies for other public buildings, such entities that oversee publicly owned venues would have no say in the bathroom policies in place while sports leagues like the NCAA hold championship games at a stadium or during a performer’s concert at an arena.

It’s unclear whether the stadium and convention center exemption, which would cover venues like NRG Stadium in Houston where the Super Bowl took place this year, was specifically included in the legislation to quell critics and those concerned about any possible economic fallout. Representatives for state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, the bill's author, and Patrick did not respond to requests for comment regarding the exemption.

But they’ve both pointed to the exemption in defending the measure.

“We want the NCAA, we want the NBA [and] the NFL, and actually, in our bill we allow them to set their own policy,” Patrick said Wednesday while discussing the bill in Washington, D.C.

When the NFL weighed in on the legislation’s possible impact, Patrick responded that “all Texas teams will be able to set their own policies at the stadiums and arenas where they play and hold their events.” (SB 6’s bathroom regulations would still apply to most college stadiums.)  

And responding to the open letter signed by singers and artists, Kolkhorst pointed out in a statement that the legislation would allow “private business and leased public venues to set their own policy.”

Officials in North Carolina used a similar argument to defend their bathroom law, but it still cost the state millions in cancellations: The NBA moved an All-Star Game from Charlotte, costing the city $100 million in profits. The city estimated it lost another $30 million when the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled its football championship. Businesses scrapped expansions in the state, and performers canceled concerts. And the NCAA relocated seven championship games from North Carolina during the 2016-17 academic year.

In light of those cancellations, business and tourism officials in Texas say they are bracing for similar fallout, arguing that the stadium and convention center exemption probably won’t be enough to keep business from leaving the state.

“The really consistent message we get back is: Don’t count on it saving you,” Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, said of feedback her group has received about the exemption from tourism officials in other states where similar legislation has been passed. Her nonprofit was recently set up to promote Texas businesses as LGBT friendly.

Associations holding conventions in Texas are already “expressing concern” over the legislation, tourism officials say. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has reached out to Patrick regarding the legislation, Patrick’s staff confirmed. And the Texas Association of Business, which represents hundreds of businesses and regularly sides with conservatives, is also opposed to the legislation, in part over concerns about it affecting the state's ability to obtain business investments and recruit top talent to the state.

It’s less certain what the legislation would mean for sports events already awarded to Texas.

The NCAA alone has at least eight events scheduled in Texas through 2019. That includes the 2018 Men’s Final Four slated to be held in San Antonio, which opponents estimate could cost the state $135 million in lost profits if the NCAA pulls the event.

In announcing cancellations in North Carolina, the NCAA — which did not respond to requests for comment for this article — pointed out four specific factors behind the cancellations, including bathroom regulations similar to those Texas has proposed.

And it’s unclear whether similar cancellations could lead to other business losses.

While Texas Competes doesn’t endorse or oppose any pending legislation, major corporations have aligned with the nonprofit’s mission. Among those who have signed on is PayPal, which canceled a 400-job expansion in North Carolina following the passage of the bathroom regulations there.

Businesses and convention planners are unwilling to be associated with measures in any state that appear “to be kind of cruelly targeting an already vulnerable group,” Shortall of Texas Competes said, and the cost of cancellations could trickle down to smaller businesses.

Maintaining that the bill is about keeping men out of women’s restrooms, Patrick has blasted concerns about possible economic repercussion.

“We have a $1.6 trillion economy,” Patrick said at the D.C. event on Wednesday. “No one is going to ding us.”

He was recently emboldened by a PolitiFact Texas report that identified flaws in the numbers widely used to sound the alarm on how much the legislation could cost the state in GDP and lost jobs.

And in dispelling concerns about losing major championship games, Patrick and his supporters point to Houston. Voters there in 2015 rejected a nondiscrimination ordinance, better known as HERO, that would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

Even after the vote, Patrick says, the NFL didn’t relocate this year’s Super Bowl at NRG Stadium. (The NFL did not weigh in on SB 6 until almost a week after that event.)

For all the back and forth over possible economic repercussions, the measure is still expected to face a tough battle through the Legislature. After remaining largely neutral on the measure, Gov. Greg Abbott this week blasted the NFL for wading into the debate over the legislation, saying the NFL needs to “get the heck out of politics.” (His staff still has not clarified whether he supports SB 6.)

But the economic argument has been the strongest holdup for House Speaker Joe Straus, who has warned that lawmakers should be “very careful” about doing anything that would negatively impact the state’s economic competitiveness.

For LGBT rights advocates, the business concerns around the legislation have helped bolster their efforts to knock down the legislation they’ve denounced as discriminatory.

“I think that never in the history of our battles have we seen the business community more unified and speaking with one voice,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, recently told the Tribune.

“Across the board, the people who are the job creators and economic engines of our country are saying, ‘Stop this. Not only are you hurting people by doing this, but you’re hurting the reputation of our state," Griffin said. "You are going to cost us thousands of jobs and billions of dollars.’”

Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.

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Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Bathroom bill Dan Patrick Texas Legislature