After helping defeat the “bathroom bill” in 2017, business groups are back to oppose “discriminatory and divisive measures”

The groups are targeting two priority bills in the Texas Senate.

Angela Hale is the executive director for Texas Welcomes All, a group including tourism officials and visitors bureaus that came together with the explicit goal of opposing the “bathroom bill.”

In the spring of 2015, 80 companies and business groups banded together to create Texas Competes, a coalition with something of a novel mission: It would make the “economic case for equality,” fighting discriminatory proposals and convincing the state’s business-friendly leaders that doing what they considered the right thing for LGBTQ Texans was also the smart play economically.

This year, the group’s membership has swelled above 1,400 organizations and counts among its ranks dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Google and Facebook.

The group and its allies are now flexing that muscle to combat legislative proposals the business leaders consider threats to their economic success due to the disparate impacts they would have on Texas’ LGBTQ communities.

That opposition infrastructure was on full display Wednesday afternoon as a slate of business leaders, including representatives of Texas’ burgeoning tech industry and tourism officials from some of the state’s biggest cities, detailed their opposition to two priority Senate bills at a Capitol press conference that came alongside an open letter to state leaders.

Perhaps the group’s biggest success was the failure last session of a “bathroom bill” that would have restricted transgender Texans’ access to certain public facilities. This year, many groups have argued, proposals that may have seemed more innocuous at first blush would create “a bathroom bill 2.0” situation.

“It’s always been about more than bathrooms because a welcoming, inclusive Texas is a 21st century economic imperative,” said David Edmonson, Texas director for TechNet, a coalition of tech companies committed to inclusivity.

At issue this week are two bills that have been tagged as priorities for the lieutenant governor. One, Republican Sen. Brandon Creighton’s Senate Bill 15, was at its start a relatively uncontroversial measure aimed at gutting mandatory paid sick leave ordinances in cities like Austin and San Antonio. But the bill was rewritten before it passed out of committee, and protections for local nondiscrimination ordinances were stripped out. Although the new version of the bill doesn’t explicitly target LGBTQ Texans, advocacy groups immediately raised alarm bells about the shift.

The other bill, Republican Sen. Charles Perry’s Senate Bill 17, would protect professional license holders from losing their licenses for conduct or speech they say was motivated by “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Advocates and business leaders say the bill would grant huge swaths of Texas employees a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ communities.

The authors of both bills insist that they are not discriminatory measures, and Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has defended them as well. Both have advanced out of Senate committees, but neither has come to the floor for a vote.

“The vast majority of business leaders in Texas know they have no greater ally than Lt. Gov. Patrick, who is helping lead the fight to ensure the Texas economy remains No. 1 in the nation and among the strongest in the world,” said Alejandro Garcia, a spokesman for Patrick.

Not every major Texas business group attended Wednesday’s press conference or signed on to the letter opposing both measures. Several major groups backed the original version of Creighton’s Senate Bill 15, which was pitched as a consensus priority for the business community.

Perry says his bill is a protection against “attempts around the country to force license holders to take oaths that go against their faith and even to suppress their freedom of speech.”

“It is concerning and disappointing that businesses or anyone, for that matter, that would be against protecting one of our basic core principles of who we are as a nation,” he said.

Creighton, who authored the paid sick leave bill, called advocacy groups’ opposition to the bill — and business groups’ support for that cause — “anti-business and flat-out dishonest.”

“The bill cannot impact a nondiscrimination ordinance, is only applicable to private employers, and promotes predictability for Texas job creators," Creighton said, citing an internal legal analysis by the city of San Antonio that indicated that the bill would not impact its regulation.

That bill passed out of committee weeks ago and has languished on the Senate’s daily list of bills that are eligible for a vote. Perry’s Senate Bill 17 has not yet been placed on that same list.

Business groups said they can’t risk the competitive disadvantage these bills would impose.

“At Visit Fort Worth, we’re in the tourism business, and at the heart of all tourism is a warm welcome,” said Robert Jameson, the group’s CEO. “Our job is to speak up before the damage happens.”

At a hearing for Perry’s religious refusal bill this week, dozens of emotional witnesses told lawmakers how the measure threatened their comfort and safety. Fewer witnesses backed the bill. Perry said the bill has significant carve-outs for doctors and police officers, meaning it would not protect physicians or law enforcement who refuse to aid or protect LGBTQ Texans in situations when their lives are at stake.

But witnesses, including a host of religious leaders, cautioned that that those limitations wouldn’t be sufficient to protect LGBTQ Texans from discrimination at the hands of occupational license holders like lawyers and social workers.

Ash Hall, an LGBTQ activist, recounted an emotional story about seeking help from a counselor while struggling with depression at Baylor University. The counselor “seemed uncomfortable with me” but “put her religious reservations aside to listen,” Hall recalled.

“If she had refused to listen to me, I would not be here today because I assure you, I would have killed myself,” Hall told the committee. “What I want people to think about when they look at this bill is that ‘life-saving’ part of it is not always so obvious. It’s easier when I walk into a doctor's office for somebody to see that I am LGBTQ before they see that, say, I am five minutes away from my appendix rupturing.”

After last session’s months-long slog to prevent any version of a bathroom bill from being passed into law, business leaders have kept in close touch with one another — and kept a close eye on the bills they consider discriminatory. That broad coalition grew in January 2017 with the formation of Texas Welcomes All, a group including tourism officials and visitors bureaus that came together with the explicit goal of opposing the bathroom bill as the Legislature geared up for a fight over the issue that would span several months.

After having its mettle tested in 2017, that vast network can mobilize quickly, as it did this week after Perry’s religious refusal bill passed out of committee.

“We’re better prepared than in 2015, when it was really uncharted territory,” said Jessica Shortall, the managing director of Texas Competes. “There wasn’t really a playbook for business and figuring out how to get engaged. Getting through 2017, where this was a steady drumbeat, there was an increasing sense of urgency. It helped us all figure out what that playbook should look like.”

This year, she added, “we’ve been briefing our members for a year and a half on the likelihood that this kind of religious exemption or religious refusal bill could be a focus.” After a “confluence of factors,” the group decided this week was time to organize a public statement and release an open letter to state leaders.

Disclosure: Amazon, Google, Facebook, Visit Fort Worth and Baylor University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.