By Jeremy Wallace and Mike Ward
Top executives of big oil companies and other major Houston firms and organizations on Monday weighed into the political dogfight over the controversial bathroom bill, calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to block passage of the legislation that they warned will harm Texas' ability to grow its economy.
That stance puts the Greater Houston Partnership in direct opposition to Abbott, who has championed the legislation.
Opponents from the state's business community are stepping up their efforts to stop the push by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for the bill that has divided Texas -- and the nation -- for months.
Resistance to bathroom bills has blossomed after backlash from earlier legislative efforts in North Carolina, Indiana and other states. Business leaders say the state risks losing millions of dollars for events that organizers threaten to cancel or move elsewhere if lawmakers pass the bill.
In a two-page letter that followed similar pleas from executives at several Fortune 500 companies, Houston business leaders noted that Texas has worked for decades "to establish its reputation as a great place to do business."
The letter came as the Texas Association of Business, which last week ramped up the opposition with a $1 million saturation broadcast ad campaign in the Dallas-Fort Worth area against the bill, made public a poll showing that only 26 percent of Republican primary voters support the bill. The poll was conducted in five GOP-controlled legislative districts selected to represent a cross-section of the state, officials with the group said.
Strong resistance remains in the Texas House, where Speaker Joe Straus and dozens of other members have repeatedly said the Legislature has more pressing issues to work on. The Senate already has passed a version of the bathroom bill.
Even as the public fight over the bathroom bill expands, lawmakers in both chambers worried Monday that the only must-pass bills of the special legislative session are being delayed after the Senate and the House quickly their own versions. With just about two weeks to go in session, those bills could become bargaining chips to get other legislation passed, several lawmakers said.
As passed by the Senate, the bathroom bill restrict bathroom access based on the gender on a person's birth certificate. Supporters including Republican organizations and pastor groups insist the law is needed to protect the privacy of women and girls, while transgender advocates and business groups say it is discriminatory and will hurt the Lone Star business climate.
"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," the letter from Houston business leaders states. "Innovative companies are driven by their people, and winning the talent recruitment battle is key. 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 letter asks Abbott to "avoid any actions, including the passage of any 'bathroom bill,' that would threaten our continued growth."
The letter is signed by top officials of the Greater Houston Partnership, Chevron North America Exploration and Production, Accenture, Amegy Bank, Andrews Kurth Kenyon LLP, Atlantic Partners Group LLC, Baker Botts LLP, BBVA Compass, BP, The Boston Consulting Group, BHP Billiton Petroleum, Bracewell LLP, Capine Production, Camden Property Trust, CenterPoint Energy, ChaseSource, Dow Chemical Company, DeMontrond Automotive Group, ConocoPhillips, Ernst & Young LLP, ExxonMobil Global Services Company, Foster LLP, Genesis Park LLP, Group 1 Automotive, Gilbane Building Co., GSL Welcome Group, James Post Interests, Houston JLL, Halliburton, Haynes and Boone LLP and Locke Lord.
In a prepared statement, Chevron officials said, "Diversity and inclusion are core to Chevron's values. Diversity is critical to developing a talented, high-performing workforce needed for ongoing business success. It is our policy that no one at Chevron should ever be subject to discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
"We do not support any legislation that is counter to those beliefs."
Abbott's office did not respond to a request for comment about the letter. But in an interview after a speech to law enforcement in North Texas earlier in the day, the Republican governor pushed back against police chiefs who have criticized the bathroom bill as being an added burden to them.
A week after police chiefs from Houston, San Antonio and Austin joined in protest against the bill, Abbott said the legislation specifically attempts to avoid adding any added burden on local police.
"There is not a role for law enforcement to play," Abbott said Monday at the annual Sheriffs' Association of Texas Training Conference and Expo in Grapevine. "Enforcement of this law is done by the Attorney General."
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Abbott said because it is a civil action and not a criminal one, police will not be part of the enforcement.
"So what I urge is for everyone to step back, calmly look at what the bill actually says, before they cast some misguided judgment," Abbott said.
Patrick, another champion of the bathroom bill, blasted the partnership's letter.
"The Partnership is out of touch with the majority of Houstonians who voted overwhelmingly in 2015 to reject the same kind of ordinance that Senate Bill 3 will prohibit. They warned of economic doom at the time, but there has been no negative impact on the City's economy. In their rush to be politically correct this business group is ignoring the fact that companies continue to expand and new ones are moving to Houston. The people of Texas are right about this issue and they are wrong," Patrick said in a statement.
Even so, the companies whose executives signed the letter stood by their position.
"Diversity and inclusion are core to Chevron's values. Diversity is critical to developing a talented, high-performing workforce needed for ongoing business success," Isabel Ordóñez, Chevron's upstream senior external affairs advisor, said in a statement, echoing sentiments of other signators. "It is our policy that no one at Chevron should ever be subject to discrimination, including on the basis of gender identity. We do not support any legislation that is counter to these beliefs."
Also Monday, the House tentatively approved four bills relating to maternal health and safety, pregnancy-related deaths, and maternal morbidity -- one of the topics Abbott set for the special session. Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said she authored one of those measures -- House Bill 11 -- after nearly losing her life giving birth to her daughter.
"It became my mission to become a voice for the voiceless," Thierry told a hushed House Chamber in a brief speech that drew a standing ovation. "Texas is now the most dangerous place to give birth in the free world ... Stand with me. Stand with all of us on this issue."
The Senate earlier passed a bill to address the same issues.
(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle