TECH POLITICS

Austin tech industry gears up to fight the bathroom bill

The question is: How much influence do city’s tech leaders have at the Capitol?

Posted July 11th, 2017

Austin’s tech industry is preparing to battle the Texas Legislature during its upcoming special session over bills that require transgender people use certain bathrooms, saying such proposals would make it difficult to recruit and retain talent in Texas and would harm the state’s reputation. 

Several tech groups are preparing letters to send to Texas’ top political leaders at the start of next week’s special session, urging the governor and legislative leaders to reject any of the so-called “bathroom bills.” 

These bills typically require transgender Texans to use bathrooms in public buildings that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificate. Some versions only apply to public schools. 

“It’s a solution in search of a problem and it really hurts the tech sector’s ability to recruit the best and brightest individuals to come to Austin,” said David Edmonson, executive director of the Austin Tech Alliance, a lobbying group that represents tech industry workers.

Edmonson said his group has gathered hundreds of signatures for an anti-bathroom bill letter to be sent to Texas’ legislative leaders on Monday. The letter says the group opposes any effort to “push for discriminatory bathroom bills.”

“The effect of these bills and the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding them is to further marginalize folks who are no danger to their fellow Texans but are disproportionately targets of violence and harassment,” the letter says.

Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFBoxes of petitions sit outside Texas Governor Greg Abbott's office in the State Capitol after being delivered by LGBTQ rights advocates Saturday May 27, 2017.

Though no bathroom bill has become law yet, some tech companies say they are already starting to see ramifications.

Barbary Brunner, CEO of the Austin Technology Council, said that Austin recruiters have told her that senior-level executives are “holding off on decisions about taking roles here” because they don’t want to live in a state with these type of regulations.

Passing rules regarding bathroom access by transgender people is a priority for Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but House Speaker Joe Straus is opposed to it. The bathroom legislation was one of the most-watched issues of the regular session because it pitted Republican leaders against one another and involved some of the most influential business groups in the state.

One reason business groups became so engaged on this issue is because of what happened in North Carolina. 

When legislators in that state passed restrictions on how transgender people use bathrooms, North Carolina experienced a backlash from the business community, with some companies canceling expansion plans. The state has since passed watered-down regulations. 

For tech industry leaders in Texas, the concern is about how tough it will be to recruit people and companies to come to Texas if it’s perceived as anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).

“This is a major issue for the tech industry in particular because of the sensitivity regarding discrimination of the LGBT community,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston.

 It’s not just the Austin tech industry that has gotten involved on the issue. 

In late May the CEOs of companies such as Facebook, Apple and IBM asked Texas legislative leaders to not pass what they called “discriminatory” legislation.  “Such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business,” the letter states.

Several Austin-based CEOs also signed the letter, including Michael Dell, founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, and Tyson Tuttle, CEO of chipmaker Silicon Labs. 

A group called TechNet, whose members include companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, helped gather signatures for the letter.

Caroline Joiner, executive director for Texas and the Southeast for TechNet, said the group is paying close attention to the bathroom bills during the Texas special session, which starts Tuesday.  

“We’re going to educate every single member -- especially in the House,” Jones said. “This is a key issue for us.”

Though Straus has said he is opposed to bathroom bills, he did support a compromise measure that would require that school districts to provide single-occupancy bathrooms and locker rooms to transgender students. 

Ken Herman/AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFFGov. Dan Patrick, standing with GOP senators, at a Friday night news conference at which he blasted Speaker Joe Straus for calling off negotiations over the bathroom bill.

Round Rock-based Dell Technologies, the biggest tech employer in the Austin metro area, is opposed to the bathroom bills and employs 10 lobbyists in addition to its in-house lobbying team, according to state lobbying registration data from 2016. 

Dell spokeswoman Lauren Lee said “Dell wants Texas to remain open for business and be part of a pro-business state that’s welcome to everyone.” 

She noted that Dell is part of several business coalitions which oppose this legislation and that they meet with them on a weekly basis and “expect engagement will ramp up as the session gets closer.”

Although the tech industry is gearing up to fight this issue, political experts say they might not carry much influence.

That’s partly because tech companies tend to be concentrated in Austin, which is mostly represented by Democrats in the Texas Legislature. 

“Their overall clout isn’t really that great because they haven’t been actively involved in donating to candidates,” said Jones, the political science professor for Rice University. 

Jones said tech companies will likely target their lobbying efforts at Republican House members who are wavering on whether to support a bathroom bill. Tech companies should also tell key legislators that they will support them in a challenging Republican primary, he said. 

The special session could last up to 30 days. Gov. Greg Abbott sets the agenda for the session and, along with topics such as teacher pay raises and school finance, included the bathroom bill as one of the approved legislative topics. He supports passing a bathroom bill.

Already, several so-called “bathroom bills” have already been filed, though some only regulate school districts.

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