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VOL. 40 | NO. 16 | Friday, April 15, 2016

Legislators playing expensive game with LGBT issues

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The silly season is in full swing on Capitol Hill, but the “bathroom bill” and any jokes surrounding it are no laughing matter anymore. It’s getting downright expensive.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said this week the bill dealing with transgender student use of restrooms could cost the state more than $1.2 billion in federal funds for K-12 and higher education.

The House bill sponsored by Mt. Juliet Republican Rep. Susan Lynn, as amended, requires public schools to provide restroom and locker room use for students as indicated on their original birth certificate and allows local education associations to make accommodations for those who don’t meet that guideline.

But even the amended version isn’t satisfying the LGBT community, which feels transgender children are being separated and outed, instead of being able to use the restroom for the gender they identify with.

“We’re very disappointed. We’ll continue to fight this. We think the fiscal impact of the bill is compelling, and we hope the finance committees will agree,” says Chris Sanders, with the Tennessee Equality Project.

Another bill allowing counselors to avoid working with gay or transgender people is drawing criticism as well.

Typically, the LGBT lobby doesn’t get much respect in the General Assembly.

In the wake of the bill’s revival, though, a handful of country music stars and major employers are pounding the Legislature, so it’ll be interesting to see how lawmakers respond to pressure and dollar signs.

Because of its potential massive effect, the bill could be postponed until after the governor’s budget plan is considered. Of course, legislators often ignore fiscal notes, some saying they don’t believe the numbers the Fiscal Review Department churns out.

But this goes deeper than a state bureaucrat’s estimate.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry says the bill’s passage could cost the city $58 million direct visitor spending, hitting the city and state with a $10 million revenue loss, based on indications conventions could pull out of Nashville or eliminate the city as a potential convention site.

Three groups are definitely canceling meetings in Nashville if the bill passes, and nine others say they aren’t likely to book an event in Tennessee, risking $57.7 million in direct spending, $4.4 million in state taxes and $5.79 million in local taxes, according to the mayor’s office.

“This legislation doesn’t reflect Nashville’s values and doesn’t do anything to improve the quality of life for citizens of our city or state.

“If some lawmakers don’t see the value in recognizing people’s dignity and privacy, I hope they can at least see the negative economic impact and potential loss of revenue to Nashville and the State of Tennessee,” Barry says in a statement.

Efforts to attract film and television production could be affected as well, says Barry, calling it “quite a price” for a bill with the potential to hurt some of the area’s “most vulnerable” people without providing any real benefit.

“Instead of creating complex and confusing regulations for restrooms or becoming the only state in the nation to allow discrimination by counseling professionals, the state should work with local governments to continue our economic growth, address traffic problems, and give our schools the resources and support they need to be successful,” Barry adds.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero isn’t raising specific financial concerns about the legislation, but she says it could be damaging.

“This bill would feed an atmosphere of intolerance that would negatively affect the lives of local families and students and also could have damaging consequences for tourism and economic development,” she says in a statement.

“We have seen that our cities thrive on diversity and respect for all people. I hope our legislators do not move forward with this unnecessary and divisive bill.”

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said “I do not believe this bill is in the best interests of Tennesseans. We’ve seen the adverse effects of the loss of potential business in other states over similar issues.

“When we in Memphis are fighting so hard for jobs and investment, we shouldn’t give reasons to discourage opportunities.”

Industry weighs in

The Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. as well as Viacom and other entertainment industry groups went on record in opposing the bathroom and counseling bills even before the House Education Administration and Planning Committee reversed course recently.

Instead of sending the bathroom bill to summer study as it first did, the committee passed it on to the Finance, Ways and Means Committee. There, it was to undergo more scrutiny of its financial impact.

Just as the education panel changed the bill’s fortunes, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBT civil rights group, sent out a statement saying executives with Dow Chemical Co., Hewlett Packard Enterprises, Choice Hotels International and Alcoa signed a letter to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell urging legislators to abandon HB2414 and SB2387, calling it “discriminatory legislation” that would force transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities inconsistent with their gender identity at K-12 schools and public universities.

Actor Chris Carmack from the ABC series “Nashville” speaks at a news conference calling on the country music industry to take a stand against proposed laws in Tennessee that LGBT activists see as discriminatory. Sarah Kate Ellis, right, president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), looks on.

-- Ap Photo/Mark Humphrey

“We are disappointed to see the legislature consider discriminatory legislation. The business community, by and large, has consistently communicated to lawmakers at every level that such laws are bad for our employees and bad for business,” the letter states.

“This is not a direction in which states move when they are seeking to provide successful, thriving hubs for business and economic development.”

The legislation would make it more difficult for businesses statewide to recruit and keep the “best and brightest” employees and land talented students, in addition to hurting the state as a destination for tourism, businesses and economic activity, the letter says.

Along with those major employers, Emmylou Harris, Chely Wright, Ty Herndon, Miley Cyrus and Country Music Television criticized the bathroom legislation, contending it would “further marginalize” transgender students by making it illegal for them to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their birth sex.

“Transgender youth already face incredibly high levels of discrimination, bullying and harassment, and it is appalling that the state of Tennessee would consider requiring public schools to discriminate against them too,” adds Chad Griffin, Human Rights Campaign President.

Committee shenanigans

The LGBT community thought it had registered a victory a couple weeks earlier when the education committee sent the bill to summer study, virtually killing it for the year. But Rep. Jim Coley, a Bartlett Republican, revived it, saying last week he wanted more committee discussion because some people had gotten the impression the bill wouldn’t be studied.

Coley, a retired teacher, also voted for a measure to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage.

Apparently, a letter by the American Civil Liberties Union urging Sumner County Schools to negotiate use of restrooms for a transgender student – or face legal action – spurred the committee.

Rep. Rick Womick, a conservative hard-liner, reversed his earlier vote, telling ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg her group needs to stop “meddling” in school affairs.

“There’s not a problem,” Womick notes, adding local schools are handling the matter. “The purpose of the bill is to protect the schools from lawsuits.”

The meeting brought together Weinberg and former legislator David Fowler of the Family Action Council, who wrote some of the legislation, an odd couple at the meeting room podium where lawmakers asked questions.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican, took exception to Fowler’s group sending emails to thousands of his constituents telling them how he voted on the matter, more or less questioning his moral fortitude.

White was visibly upset, his voice shaking, as he told Fowler, “I’m trying to protect the privacy of children, in elementary especially, and protect the state.”

Fowler, however, says it’s common for constituents to receive information about how lawmakers vote, and in later comments raised doubts the legislation would receive serious discussion.

Weinberg told the committee, “It’s about protecting all students,” based on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, though when challenged by Womick she struggled to say which of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution would protect the restroom rights of students.

And, despite an impassioned plea from Democratic Rep. Johnnie Turner, of Memphis, not to discriminate against these transgender students, some of whom were in the audience, the committee’s hearts hardened.

“I was born black, and I know some of the terrible things these young people are going to encounter because they were born different,” said Turner, who pointed out she was forced to the back of the bus and to walk past white schools as a child.

Nobody cared, though, or listened.

Interestingly, Fowler said, “If I could find a solution apart from this bill, I would do it gladly – in a heartbeat.”

Meanwhile, senators down the hall are wondering what the heck is going on in the Lower Chamber.

Ask them about the bathroom bill, and you get rolling eyeballs. They say they’re more concerned about the economy or aligning students with the job market.

Then again, half of them will be running for re-election this fall, too, and they’ll have to be able to answer to votes for or against transgender kids.

Final analysis

This isn’t a flippant response but merely an observation of social behavior: Most people don’t put sexual preference or sexual identity in the same category as race. Otherwise, they would have paid more attention to Rep. Turner’s impassioned plea. If we ever reach that point, it’s going to take a long time.

After all, it took centuries for people to escape slavery and segregation, and in many ways, we still live in a racially separate society.

From a parental standpoint, it would be upsetting for your daughter to be using the restroom with a boy who wants to be girl. Then again, restrooms have never been very safe.

That’s where kids cuss, smoke and fight. In junior high, seventh-graders were scared to go near a restroom for fear a ninth-grader would grab them and flush their head in a toilet.

Here we are with the 2016 session of the General Assembly about to wrap up and legislators are trying to send transgender people to the back of the bus, or put them in separate restrooms, much the way black Americans were forced to use separate schools, water fountains and movie seats for decades.

If folks didn’t know better, they might think this bathroom bill and legislation allowing counselors to avoid counseling gay people are straight-up reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriages and overturning Tennessee state law, needless pieces of legislation designed to punish people for the court ruling.

Nah, that would never happen.

Republicans would never try to tell people how to live. They’re the party of less government. They’re just having a strange way of showing it, and it could cost Tennesseans many billions of dollars.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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