Big Oil weighs in on Texas 'bathroom bill,' warning it will threaten state's economy

In a significant blow to Texas cultural conservatives, some of the nation’s most powerful oil and gas companies on Monday joined the chorus of business voices opposing Republican lawmakers’ contentious “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people.

Leaders of more than 50 Houston-based businesses, including BP America, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and Halliburton, signed a letter to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott urging him not to sign a so-called bathroom bill that would harm their ability to attract and retain talent from around the world.

“We support diversity and inclusion, and we believe that any such bill risks harming Texas' reputation and impacting the state's economic growth and ability to create new jobs,” they wrote in a letter organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development group serving the Houston metropolitan area.

“Any bill that harms our ability to attract top talent to Houston will inhibit our growth and continued success — and ultimately the success of our great state.”

The state’s staunchly conservative Senate passed controversial legislation, Senate Bill 3, last week. It would restrict access to bathrooms, showers and changing facilities in government buildings and public schools based on the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate. It would also ban cities, counties and schools from adopting nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender people to use public restrooms of their choice or participate in athletic events that match their gender identity.

The legislation faces an uphill battle in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus, a centrist Republican, has signaled he has little interest in passing a bill he deems unnecessary and discriminatory.

“I’m disgusted by all this,” Straus told New Yorker magazine in a recent interview. “Tell the lieutenant governor I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hands.”

Already, a string of Fortune 500 corporations, including AT&T, American Airlines, Facebook and Apple, has condemned the legislation. But companies such as ExxonMobil and Halliburton — more traditionally associated with conservative values— have more clout in the state’s Republican circles.

“This is one more nail in the bathroom bill’s coffin,” said Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “What we have here are not only a group of very powerful and important companies, but energy companies that are generally assumed to be among the most reliable allies of the Republican Party. They generally don’t get involved in these types of fights, and here they are sending a shot across the bow that this legislation is bad for business.”

Abbott included a bathroom bill on his list of conservative priorities when he called lawmakers back to Austin this month for a special session.

Opposition from a slew of Texas companies would help Straus block the law and push Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick into a corner, Jones said. Ultimately, he said, the letter from the oil companies might be read as a warning to the governor not to call a second special session if the House failed to pass a bathroom bill.

“This isn’t Facebook or Apple, which many Texas Republicans would see as tied to the global elite that comes from the coasts of California and New York,” he said. “They can’t dismiss this as the Austin tech industry. Republican primary voters aren’t going to dismiss complaints by Halliburton as simply the coastal elite trying to impose their cultural values on us.”

Two weeks ago, IBM, one of the state’s largest employers, took out full-page ads in major newspapers in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, saying, “No one should face discrimination for being who they are.”

The Texas Assn. of Business has also run radio ads warning that an “unnecessary” bill deemed to discriminate against transgender people may cost Texas the 2018 NFL draft.

A similar controversy already has played out in North Carolina. Earlier this year, after sustained business opposition and boycotts of major sporting and music events, lawmakers in that state repealed House Bill 2, a sweeping law that restricted bathroom access for transgender people.

North Carolina legislators attempted to craft a new compromise, House Bill 142, which removed the most controversial part of the law that required transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings according to the sex on their birth certificates. But last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal filed a new court challenge against the revised law, which prohibits local governments from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances, arguing it too singled out transgender people for discrimination.

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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