TechBloc CEO David Heard and State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) held a public one-on-one meeting Friday to discuss Senate Bill 6’s “devastating” impact on the local economy if it passes during the State Legislature’s special session that starts on Tuesday.

“We want the public and business leadership to understand the damage this bill can do,” Menéndez said. “This will probably be the last conversation we’re going to have regarding this before the special session. We have some serious concerns about the bathroom bill. I think it will have an incredibly detrimental effect on our city and state, and I believe San Antonio will be disproportionately impacted.

“The economic impact to this city is greater than any other in this state.”

SB 6, or the Texas Privacy Act, would regulate bathroom use in government buildings, public schools and universities based on biological sex, prohibiting transgender individuals – residents and visitors – from using bathrooms that match their gender identities. The regulation requires that those entities’ bathrooms and changing facility be designated and used only by persons of the same biological sex.

The measure, as filed by State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), would also prohibit local governments from adopting or enforcing local bathroom regulations. Supporters of the bill claim it’s about keeping sexual predators out of bathrooms: Men could pose as transgender women in order to enter women’s bathrooms and commit crimes, they say.

But Menéndez and others believe SB 6 “makes the transgender community feel isolated, vulnerable and threatened,” he said.

Gov. Greg Abbott makes his campaign announcement at Sunset Station.
Gov. Greg Abbott. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration for a special session of the Texas Legislature that convenes July 18 to decide a long list of contentious issues, including the bathroom bill. It has been a legislative priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and he has confirmed his support on his campaign site. House Speaker Joe Straus has denounced the bill.

The Rivard Report has compiled a guide that will help readers get in touch with their representatives in order to make their voices heard on important issues at the state and federal level ahead of the special session. Click below:

At the forum organized with help from Visit San Antonio, Menéndez outlined four reasons he has worked against the bill. “When Senate Bill 6 was introduced, it had little to do with privacy. My opinion is that its first major flaw is that it targets a very vulnerable group of Texans,” Menéndez said.

“Second, the bathroom bill has disastrous economic consequences for our city and state,” he said.

Menéndez cited a similar bill passed in North Carolina last year that “cost the state millions in lost tourism revenue, and prompted the National Basketball Association and the NCAA to move games,” according to the Washington Post, as a “preview” of what could happen here.

At least 10 major organizations committed to bringing meetings and events to the city in coming years are now telling Visit San Antonio that if the legislation passes, they will not come. If that happens, San Antonio could stand to lose over $40 million. Three such organizations have already declined to hold meetings here due to SB 6 concerns, a $3 million loss.

“We’re in a circling pattern with those groups,” said Richard Oliver, director of partner and community relations at Visit San Antonio. “The idea being that they have concerns about the legislation and make decisions on the future of where they’ll hold their meetings depends on that legislation. San Antonio is nowhere near alone on that.”

A report by the Perryman Group, commissioned by Visit San Antonio, estimated the state would lose about $3 billion, and over time, those losses would rise.

“With its numerous attractions and high level of tourism and travel, the San Antonio area would be particularly hard hit by restrictive public policy,” stated the report. Also at risk if SB 6 passes and tourism is impacted are the 130,000 employees who work in the tourism industry here, and the families they support.

“The biggest problem for the tourism and hospitality industry, it’s never about just this year,” Oliver said. “We’re trying to get conventions for 2023, 2026. So who do I not even know I’m losing? Who has scratched Texas off their list because of these kinds of discussions?”

San Antonio is gearing up to host two major events in 2018 – the NCAA Men’s Final Four tournament and the NAACP National Convention – but there are fears that the city will lose hosting privileges for both if SB 6 is signed into law.

The Final Four is expected to generate $243 million in revenues for the city, and the Alamodome is currently undergoing a $60 million renovation to host the nationally-televised collegiate sporting event.

“I think that losing the Final Four would be devastating for our economy and our morale,” Menéndez said. “UTSA and the City of San Antonio have been preparing months, if not years, to host this event and a lot of time and money has been spent. And them moving is not a hypothetical [concern].

(From left) Tech Bloc CEO David Heard and State Senator José Menéndez (D26) lead a press conference titled "Bottom Line: Business Beyond Bathrooms" at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
(From left) Tech Bloc CEO David Heard and State Sen. José Menéndez (D26) lead a press conference titled “Bottom Line: Business Beyond Bathrooms” at the Henry B. González Convention Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“It’s already happened once in North Carolina and I think it could happen here.”

Last October, more than 200 small Texas businesses banded together and released an open letter by Equality Texas – a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equal rights group – opposing the legislation.

And San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ramiro Cavazos has called the bathroom bill discriminatory, and thus a critical threat to the economy.

Heard opened his remarks at Friday’s forum by saying, “I’m not really sure what problem this legislation is attempting to solve. It seems to me to be less about public safety and more about discrimination fueled by presumed religious morality.

“But I will tell you that the economic impact results are in so we don’t have to conceptualize what would happen. We’ve seen what would happen when you enact legislation like this that discriminates against a certain part of the population,” he said. “It is a job killer. It is one of the quickest ways to push tech jobs out of your community.”

Tech Bloc CEO David Heard speaks at a press conference titled "Bottom Line: Business Beyond Bathrooms" at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Tech Bloc CEO David Heard talks about the impacts of the “bathroom bill” at the Henry B. González Convention Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

There are about 1,000 information technology companies in San Antonio, most of them small businesses or startups, and about 35,000 IT workers, mostly between the ages of 28 and 32. The average annual wage of an IT worker here is $70,000. But San Antonio is a Tier 2 Tech city, in terms of talent, Heard said, and not yet considered as a destination for major tech companies.

“Regulations like this create the sense that we’re not open, not competitive, and believe me, the tech workforce is young and progressive. They want openness and they want free markets to complete. And these types of discriminatory legislation cloud the environment, and make it all too easy to just move down the list to the next best choice to build a career.”

Despite some wins in building up a tech industry here, Heard added, “we’ve got a ways to go and concerns about our economic development are not trumped up.”

In May, top tech CEOs of companies including Facebook, IBM, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott urging him not to pass SB6.

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Menéndez read a portion of the letter: “Such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business. As large employers in the state, we’re gravely concerned that any such legislation would deeply tarnish Texas’ reputation as an open and friendly place to do business and for families. Our ability to attract, retain and recruit top talent, encourage new business expansion, relocations and investments, and maintain our economic competitiveness would be negatively affected. Discrimination is wrong and has no place in Texas or anywhere in our country …”

“Tech companies are looking for easy reasons to mark cities off their list because it’s already difficult to zone in on where that investment should go,” Heard said. “And things like this just make it too easy. It makes the pitch of our competitor cities and states so much easier and I really fear that the full extent of the economic impact we would feel downstream would be greater than we even imagine.”

In addition to the potential economic costs of SB 6, Menéndez is opposed to a bathroom bill because he believes laws already exist to protect people, including SB 1317, a law passed in 2015 that makes it a felony to photograph someone in a public restroom.

The Portland Loo is a public restroom located on South Alamo Street between Commerce and Market streets. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

He also noted that the laws proposed by SB 6 are, in his view, unenforceable and abolish local control.

“The City of San Antonio already has one of the best non-discrimination ordinances, which is why I think it makes our city welcoming to many people,” Menéndez said.

Since SB 6 was filed, 21 amendments have been proposed and failed to pass, three of those by Menéndez. Almost 300 people have testified against the bill, and 1,302 registered opposition, according to Menéndez.

As one major supporter of the bathroom bill, Texas Values has published “Six Essential Facts about Senate Bill 6.”

In it, they list six reasons the Texas Privacy Act is good for Texas. They believe the bill “protects the privacy and safety of our schoolchildren … protects the freedom of businesses to set their own policies … is good news for businesses … and empowers individuals,” among other things.

“I try to keep things more secular. But we’re all God’s children,” Menéndez said. “Which one of us is worthy enough to judge another? I think it’s wrong for us to say, unless you’re breaking the law, you’re not allowed to go into this bathroom just because of who you are.

“I propose that this idea does not make Texas better.”

On Monday, July 17, Texas tourism and business leaders plan to meet on the south steps of the Capitol in Austin to voice opposition to SB 6. According to a statement, the coalition that includes representatives from across the state will be using the hashtags #keeptxopen and #texaswelcomesall and discuss “the economic impact that is already been seen and felt due to the legislature’s ongoing push to pass a bathroom bill.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.