Texas tries to stop safeguards for gays as rural areas hold sway

AUSTIN, Texas – Republicans in Texas want to strip away job protections that its biggest cities now grant gay residents, a drive that reflects a divide between urban and rural interests that increasingly defines U.S. politics.

Lawmakers say Houston, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio and Plano shouldn’t be able to supercede state laws, which in Texas don’t shield gays and lesbians from being fired for their sexual preference or gender identity. Plano’s mayor says the legislature risks harming the business climate.

“This is an economic-development issue,” said Harry LaRosiliere, mayor of the suburb 20 miles north of Dallas, which is home to employers including the Frito-Lay unit of PepsiCo and J.C. Penney Co. “The message that this would send if we say we are not a welcoming community would be devastating.”

The so-called pre-emption bills are part of a multifaceted effort by Republican-controlled legislatures, many dominated by rural conservatives, to rein in Democratic urban centers that have passed bans on plastic bags, prohibitions on oil and gas drilling and restrictions on carrying guns.

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The local-control fight is playing out after Arkansas and Indiana backtracked last week on religious-freedom laws that critics said sanctioned discrimination against homosexuals. Both states retreated amid a national outcry led by businesses.

Only 19 states and Washington, D.C., protect people from employment discrimination based on gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a gay-rights advocacy group based in Denver. Three states have protections for sexual orientation, not gender identity.

Yet more than 200 cities and counties have moved to curb discrimination. Of the ordinances currently in place, almost half of them have been adopted since 2010.

In February, Arkansas enacted a pre-emption law that prevents a city from passing a nondiscrimination ordinance, because there’s no such protection at the state level. In 2011, Tennessee enacted a similar law. Measures in Mississippi and West Virginia failed this year.

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Such restrictions fall most heavily on college towns such as Austin or Fayetteville, Arkansas, and on commercial centers that attract diverse populations. In Houston, which supplies about a third of the Texas gross state product, Mayor Annise Parker is a lesbian.

Cities tend to have a higher proportion of minorities and more young professionals, who tend to vote Democratic. In the U.S., rural residents accounted for less than 20 percent of the population in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.

“When you see these kinds of issues like gay rights or immigration reform or health care, longer term the demographics are going to be in favor of those kinds of issues,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “In the interim, it’s still pretty much a collision.”

Republicans control 30 legislatures, compared with 16 in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Through redistricting in 2000 and 2010, Republicans have been able to carve out districts dominated by rural and suburban voters.

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This has especially held true in Texas, which has three of the nation’s 10 largest cities. Its frontier image notwithstanding, almost 85 percent of the population is urban, compared with a U.S. average of 81 percent, according to Census data.

“Conservative Republican control has allowed them to dilute that urban strength,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin all voted for President Barack Obama in 2012. Still, Republican Mitt Romney won nearly 60 percent of the vote with the help of suburban and rural districts.

Lawmakers who represent places such as Dime Box and Levelland dominate the Republican-led legislature. Newly elected Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican native of Wichita Falls, said that he wants to rein in big cities to prevent the state from becoming “California-ized.”

Lawmakers have introduced more than two dozen measures that would limit the power of cities on matters such as the use of traffic-light enforcement cameras, tree removal on private property and regulating the temperature of raw milk.

At least four proposals target the cities that have passed ordinances protecting gays.

Rick Miller, a Republican representative from Sugar Land, a Houston suburb, introduced a bill that would make it illegal for a city to pass an ordinance creating a protected class, such as gays or lesbians, or prohibiting discrimination on a basis not contained in state law. Miller, whose son is gay, said he doesn’t think cities should tell businesses “how to do business and who to do business with.”

“I’m a local-control person, but it has to be the right local control,” Miller said. “I just personally think that the cities have overstepped their bounds.”

Houston’s Parker said she’s concerned that the legislature could strip away her city’s ordinance.

“The Indiana governor is seeing tens of millions of dollars of business flow away from his state,” Parker said at a news conference April 1. “I’m hoping that wiser heads will prevail and that Texas won’t do something that could impact the state economically.”

Cities are the economic drivers of the U.S. economy. The output of the nation’s 10 largest metropolitan areas amounted to $5.88 trillion in 2012, more than a third of total U.S. gross domestic product and greater than the combined output of 37 states, according to figures from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

In Indiana and Arkansas, governors were forced to backtrack after businesses including Wal-Mart Stores and Apple said such laws discourage recruitment.

Businesses in Texas are bracing for a similar reaction. In addition to the pre-emption bills, more than a dozen other measures target gays, including two proposed constitutional amendments that would strengthen the right of citizens to invoke religious freedom to deny service or goods. Several bills also would restrict transgendered people from using bathrooms of their choice.

On Tuesday, Bill Hammond, the chief executive officer of the Texas Association of Business, urged lawmakers to tread carefully, speaking at a news conference at the Capitol with several ranking Democrats.

“These amendments are bad for business,” he said. “They are bad for Texas. They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business. One has to look no further than Indiana to realize what a detriment this would be and how hard it makes it to sell Texas to the rest of our country.”