A bill filed in the South Carolina Senate that would restrict transgender people's access to restrooms and changing rooms could bring business problems that have plagued other states that have enacted similar legislation, experts say.
Senate Bill 1203, filed by Sen. Lee Bright, R-Spartanburg, would bar local governments and school boards from passing laws or enacting policies allowing people to use multiple occupancy restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with the gender with which they identify. It would also mandate that state-run parks, museums and other facilities only allow people to use the restrooms and changing facilities that correspond with their biological sex at birth.
The Greenville Chamber of Commerce came out against the bill Thursday, saying it does not promote economic inclusion, growth or competitiveness.
"This legislation simply opens a contentious debate on a problem we do not have here in our state," said Carlos Phillips, the chamber's president and CEO.
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The bill has been compared to North Carolina's controversial House Bill 2, which includes provisions mirroring those in Bright's bill, but also blocks local policies that would protect LGBT people from being denied service at restaurants, hotels and other private businesses based on proprietors' religious beliefs. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed business owners to deny LGBT people service based on religious beliefs. Last week, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law that would allow businesses and faith-based groups to deny LGBT people service, jobs, housing and adoption and foster care services on the basis of religion.
Companies have responded negatively to the controversial legislation in other Southern states. Payment company PayPal withdrew plans to add 400 jobs in a Charlotte expansion in response to the North Carolina legislation. NCAA President Mark Emmert has said that the law would count against the state when the sports league considers sites for future postseason games and tournaments, and the NBA said the legislation could affect its decision to hold its all-star game in Charlotte in 2017.
Before Deal vetoed the Georgia bill, the NFL said it would not consider Atlanta for future Super Bowl sites if the bill became law. Disney was one of multiple film companies to threaten to stop filming movies in Georgia.
In South Carolina, similar reactions could be expected, said Derek Black, a University of South Carolina School of Law professor specializing in civil rights law.
"I don't have any reason to believe South Carolina would have a pass in a way North Carolina and Mississippi would not," Black said.
But much of the potential damage could already have been done simply by introducing the bill, said Tom Smythe, a Furman University business professor.
"The fact that the bill has been introduced at all creates this perception, rightly or wrongly, that South Carolina is behind the times," Smythe said. "Just the introduction of the bill almost may cause as much damage as if it were passed ... We suggest that we’re so pro-business, and we are, and something like this happens, and the business community says, 'You're not being pro-business.'"
Learning about legislation that is perceived anti-LGBT may give companies pause when considering South Carolina as a site for expansion or investment.
The only major difference in the potential affect on South Carolina from states like North Carolina or Georgia would be the scale, Smythe said. Atlanta and Charlotte are popular sites for major professional sports events, and comparable places in South Carolina don't exist. However, the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House did provide South Carolina with more opportunities to host NCAA postseason games and tournaments. That opportunity could be put in jeopardy once more if Bright's bill were to pass.
"Last year we were able to welcome back in some business opportunities and athletic opportunities that we hadn't had before," Black said. "We took a big step in taking the flag down and saying South Carolina is as welcome as any other state. Passing a bill like this could undo some of that."
But whether the bill will pass is a significant question. It has less than a month to pass by the May 1deadline that would carry it over to the House of Representatives. Gov. Nikki Haley, who has made economic development a hallmark of her administration, dismissed it as unnecessary with little chance of passage when speaking to reporters Wednesday and Thursday.
"Nothing is going to happen with the bill this year," Haley said.
By Thursday afternoon, three Upstate senators had joined the bill as co-sponsors: Sen. Kevin Bryant (R-Anderson), Sen. Larry Martin (R-Pickens) and Sen. Mike Fair (R-Greenville), all of whom are facing primary opponents. Bryant chairs the Senate General Committee, where the bill will see its first reading and vote.
Bright, who also represents parts of Greenville County, is also facing a primary challenge, with three candidates running to unseat him. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce said Thursday it would not support Bright's bid for re-election and is currently vetting his opponents, businessman David McCraw, Duncan Mayor Lisa Scott and lawyer Scott Talley. The chamber has a political action committee and anticipates being active in this year's senate races.
"This is just another part of the reason we're against Lee Bright," said Gena McGroarty, the chamber's associate vice president of communications.
Ted Pitts, the chamber's president and CEO and a former adviser to Haley, said the chamber agrees with the governor that the legislation is unneccesary.
"Sen. Bright is trying to create a political crisis that doesn’t exist to save his political career. Meanwhile, our state has real issues we need to address including crumbling roads and a skills gap," Pitts said in a statement. "We’ll be working on electing serious senators next year who will be focused on addressing the state's infrastructure and workforce needs and limiting government’s role in our lives.”