Top Texas Republicans are eager to bring a fight that sparked upheaval and business boycotts in North Carolina to the country's largest conservative state, unveiling Thursday a bill that would ban transgender people from using the bathroom of their choice.
The "Texas Privacy Act" requires all Texas residents to use the bathroom or locker room according to the gender on their birth certificates and prohibits local governments from passing ordinances designed to protect gay rights in public restrooms and other "intimate settings."
"It's the right thing to do," said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who oversees the state Senate and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. while promoting the proposal at the Texas Capitol. "The people of Texas elected us to stand up for common sense, common decency and public safety."
Bill sponsor Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican from rural Brenham, said her "thoughtful and unique" bill won't create a "bathroom police" and will allow anyone to lodge complaints upon seeing something in public restrooms that makes them uncomfortable. She added the bill was written "not to start a controversy but to end one."
But the news conference itself caused a stir. Organizers had to close the door of a packed room after about a dozen protesters -- some carrying handmade signs reading "Flush SB6" (Senate Bill 6) -- launched a chorus of loud boos.
Texas' largest business lobbying group says approving the measure and other popular anti-gay rights proposals could cost the state up to $8.5 billion and 100,000-plus jobs.
A local coalition formed to defeat Senate Bill 6 said the economic losses would hit North Texas if the bill passes. The members include representatives from the American Airlines Center, museums, various chamber of commerce groups and the Dallas Sports Commission.
"One of the things we are very, very concerned about is in a recent survey by US Travel and Meeting Professionals International 47-percent of meeting planners indicated they would not hold a meeting in a city or state with policies that are viewed as discriminatory,” said Phillip Jones, Pres. and CEO, Visit Dallas.
The group said North Texas would be in jeopardy of losing its position to land major sporting events -- pointing to North Carolina, which recently lost the NBA All-Star Weekend because of a similar law.
"Dallas is hosting the Women's Final Four this year, this coming March and we're on the books to host a Men’s NCAA first and second round in 2018, so this topic, we alerted them this may be a possibility coming down the pipe. They said once it is filed we need to have a meeting and discuss this because we have to figure out what that plan is,” said Monica Paul, Dallas Sports Commission.
Yet, many conservatives in the GOP-controlled Legislature, which convenes Tuesday, are expected to embrace the "bathroom bill." It could have problems clearing the state House, though, where Republican Speaker Joe Straus says suggested it won't be the highest priority.
North Carolina's law, which went into effect last year, caused corporations, entertainers and NCAA sporting events to back out to avoid being seen as endorsing discrimination -- potentially costing the state billions in lost revenue. Despite that fallout, lawmakers in at least two other states, Virginia and Kentucky, have introduced similar bills.
Patrick was defiant regarding possible economic ramifications, noting that Houston voters in 2015 -- an election that saw low turnout -- defeated an equal rights ordinance designed to protect gay and transgender residents and no problems came of it. The city is even hosting this year's Super Bowl.
"The economic doom?" Patrick asked. "The Super Bowl is teed up for 5:30 p.m. on February 7."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and other rights groups sounded alarm.
"It's unnecessary, discriminatory and inconsistent with the constitutional value of equal protection for all," the ACLU's legal and policy director, Rebecca L. Robertson, said in a statement. "Make no mistake -- the invidious intent of SB6 is to deny transgender Texans the ability to participate in public life."
Texas already led a 13-state coalition that successfully sued to block an Obama administration order from last year requiring public schools nationwide to let transgender students use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice. Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement Thursday that that effort meant "states are now free to enact legislation of their choosing to protect privacy."