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Top Texas CEOs Fail to Flush Lone Star State Bathroom Bills

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces that there will be a special session of the Texas Legislature on June 6, 2017, in Austin. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

This summer will be a 21st-century version of storied showdown at the O.K. Corral for Texas business leaders who are worried that a so-called “bathroom bill” will wreck the state’s economy.

Texas Republicans battled amongst themselves over the two proposed bathroom bills in bitter debates that closed out the legislature’s regular session in May.

State Rep. Ron Simmons (R) wanted to prevent municipal governments and school districts from implementing transgender-friendly bathroom policies.

“The main concern is our schools and making sure that privacy is protected in those arenas,” Simmons told the Texas Tribune.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R) sponsored a competing bathroom bill that would have been even more restrictive than Simmons’ HB 2899.

Both bills failed, and neither Gov. Greg Abbott (R) nor Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) was pleased.

The bathroom bills were not the only legislative disappointments for Abbott and Patrick. In May they were already threatening to call the legislature back for a special session to finish the work Abbott and Patrick had wanted them to accomplish by the end of May.

Gov. Abbott has called for a special session that will begin July 18. The issue of “privacy” is on the list of the top 20 issues that both men would like considered by the legislature. As far as they are concerned, the question of whether public school and municipal restrooms should be gender neutral is actually an issue of privacy.

Rep. Simmons told the Texas Tribune he would re-introduce HB 2899, but a spokesman for Sen. Kolkhorst declined to comment.

“Considering all the successes of the 85th legislative session, we should not be where we are today,” Abbott said in a statement. “A special session was entirely avoidable, and there was plenty of time for the legislature to forge compromises to avoid the time and taxpayer expense of a special session.”

“As governor, if I am going to call a special session, I intend to make it count,” Abbott added.

Patrick released a statement in which he “congratulated Gov. Abbott for his big and bold session agenda which solidly reflects the priorities of the people of Texas.”

“The people of Texas have a right to expect that we will finish the job on these critical issues,” Patrick said.

But opponents like Rep. Chris Turner, who was the campaign manager for Wendy Davis, Abbott’s Democratic rival in 2014, believe there is a different dynamic at play.

“My take is that he is clearly panicked about the far right, and he feels the need to shovel as much red meat to the far right of his party as he can,” Turner told the New York Times.

Abbott’s decision to add “privacy” or bathroom bill legislation to his agenda for the special legislative agenda also flies in the face of everything the Texas business community has been telling him since this debate began.

Texas’ top business executives urged the governor not to continue the battle over the bathroom bill. The Texas Association of Business has been against the legislation since it was introduced in March.

“As leaders in the Texas business community, we have an obligation to our employees, customers, shareholders and the Texas communities we serve to oppose discriminatory legislation that jeopardizes the positive environment for our Texas business operations,” read a Texas Association of Business letter that was sent to Abbott, Patrick, and House Speaker Joe Straus in March 2017.

The Dallas Morning News reported in May, as the first round of debate over the bathroom bills was coming to an end, that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Apple CEO Tim Cook, along with the leaders of a dozen other companies had written to Gov. Abbott urging him to forget about “discriminatory laws.”

“As large employers in the state, we are gravely concerned that any such legislation would deeply tarnish Texas’ reputation as open and friendly to businesses and families,” the CEOs wrote in a letter dated May 27. “Our ability to attract, recruit and retain top talent, encourage new business relocations, expansions and investment, and maintain our economic competitiveness would all be negatively affected.”

“Discrimination is wrong, and it has no place in Texas or anywhere in our country,” the CEOs also wrote.

Mark P. Jones, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s political science fellow at Rice University, warned in an op-ed published by Fortune that the Bathroom Bill could mean “economic disaster” for Texas.

“Texas is likely to see the cancellation of major sporting events and conventions – and possibly even a major boycott – if it passes its bathroom bill,” Jones wrote.

But none of that was persuasive enough to turn Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Patrick away from their goal of making sure no local government or public school district in Texas lets people use the bathroom of their choice.

Mark McKinnon, a former advisor to Pres. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, opined in the Texas Tribune that Abbott’s decision to push forward with the bathroom bill is a sign that the Texas business lobby has lost much of its political clout: “Many in the state’s GOP leadership are moving away from, even ignoring, the business community,” he said, adding that some GOP politicians “are effectively ignoring what the unified business community is saying about the ‘bathroom bill’ and other manufactured issues.”

“Business used to be the engine of the of the Texas legislative agenda,” McKinnon wrote in an email to the Dallas Morning News. “Now it feels like the caboose.”