AUSTIN — The battle over Texas’ so-called bathroom bill went another round on Tuesday, with a Senate hearing that proved there are few more volatile blends than money, religion and gender politics.
A top legislative priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Senate Bill 6 requires transgender people to use restrooms in government buildings as well as public schools and colleges that match their “biological sex.”
Decrying opponents’ “scare tactics,” over threats of business leaving the state, the bill’s author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said the measure would provide safety in “intimate” spaces such as the dressing room of the gym where she works out at night.
But opponents pointed out that voyeurism and assault are already illegal in Texas and challenged supporters over the extent of violence on the part of transgender people.
“The laws already exist,” said the Rev. David Wynn of Fort Worth’s Agape Metropolitan Community Church, who identifies as a transgender male. “When I go into a public restroom, I just need to pee.”
The Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing drew a list of witnesses who wanted to testify that numbered about 400 when it opened at 8 a.m.
But the battle lines were drawn a day earlier when Patrick at a Monday press conference said that a coalition, Operation One Million Voices, would rally activists to ensure “a successful outcome.”
Kolkhorst, who in a recent op-ed decried “out-of-state activists, who have arrived to derail SB 6,” herself shared a lectern with an out-of-stater, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest at the press conference.
Forest said that “this is an issue about doing the right thing.”
But, North Carolina, which passed a similar measure in 2016, is doing all right economically, Forest said, even though the NCAA and ACC took their championship games to other states after the Tar Heel State enacted its bathroom bill.
The negative economic impact in North Carolina amounts to one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, Forest said.
Patrick, who made the Texas bathroom bill a top priority for the session, said talk of a potential negative economic impact here was a “false narrative.”
But business figures from around the state said otherwise.
At a Monday press conference sponsored by Texas Welcomes All, a coalition of business leaders and tourism officials, speakers said Texas is courting a multi-billion-dollar disaster if SB 6 passes.
The bill “threatens our brand,” said Tom Noonan, president and CEO of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Twenty-two organizations that are considering bringing events worth about $110 million to Austin have told Noonan that they’ll cancel if the governor signs the bill, he said.
Phillip Jones, CEO of Visit Dallas, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said convention planners are already considering canceling conventions in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio if the bill becomes law.
“We are concerned that this would have a very damaging impact,” Jones said.
Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer for the annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, said that the prospect of enacting SB 6 is already raising “concerns about next year,” among participants.
The South by Southwest Music Festival put over $277 million into Austin’s economy in 2016.
As the Senate took more testimony on Tuesday, witnesses echoed themes the business alliance raised on Monday.
Diane Crawford, global commercial operations director of Irving-based Celanese Corporation, told the committee that her company opposes the bill, saying that it “sends a message of exclusion and drives away young members of the work force.”
But Kolkhorst emphasized that the bill only addresses “intimate facilities in public places,” and leaves business to create their own restroom policies, even in spaces leased from public entities.
Said Kolkhorst, “I’m proud to offer this bill, to try to strike a balance.”
John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com