LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Two years ago, a bill blasted by critics as anti-LGBT upended the final days of a legislative session that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson had hoped to focus on tax cuts and health care reform. A plan by GOP lawmakers to push for a “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people means the Legislature is about to dive into a reprise of that battle.
A one-sentence bill filed last week offered little specifics, other than saying its purpose was to address “gender identity and bathroom privileges.” A lawmaker co-sponsoring the measure said, once finalized, it’ll require people to use public restrooms consistent with the gender on their birth certificates.
“If they were born a male, that’s where they’ve got to use the bathroom,” Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield said.
The plan has spurred warnings from Hutchinson, as well as tourism and business groups, that such a measure isn’t needed and could subject the state to the widespread backlash and boycotts North Carolina faced over its bathroom law. That measure prompted the NBA to move its All-Star Game out of Charlotte and the NCAA to pull seven championship events out of the state, while major companies abandoned or halted plans to expand in North Carolina. A similar measure considered in Texas is raising similar concerns of economic fallout, with the NFL warning the state could be passed over for future Super Bowl sites if it becomes law.
“We don’t need that in Arkansas, and if there’s a North Carolina-type bill, then I want the Legislature not to pass it,” Hutchinson told reporters last week.
The Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau warned the measure could threaten millions of dollars central Arkansas has seen through meetings, tourism and sporting events.
“Should this bill pass and become law, central Arkansas’s economic landscape will severely suffer; the adverse effects on convention and sports related business will be substantial,” said Gretchen Hall, the bureau’s president and CEO.
Republican Sen. Greg Standridge, the bill’s co-sponsor, defended the legislation and said, once finalized, it’ll be more narrowly crafted than what was enacted in North Carolina.
“This is not a North Carolina bill, trust me,” Standridge said. “You’ll see when it’s all said and done.”
The uproar and national attention Arkansas could see over the bathroom bill will likely surpass what the state Legislature witnessed in 2015, when Hutchinson asked lawmakers to rework a religious objections bill that a wide array of opponents that included Wal-Mart and the governor’s son called discriminatory. That session was also marked by a bill aimed at preventing cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — a bill that Hutchinson allowed to become law despite his concerns it infringed on local control.
The debate could also re-open the wounds among lawmakers over the way the religious objections bill was revised. Stubblefield, for example, had objected two years ago to a shell bill he had sponsored being used as the vehicle for the reworked religious objections measure.
It also comes as the state is facing challenges elsewhere in court over other LGBT rights issues. The Arkansas Supreme Court is weighing whether a Fayetteville anti-discrimination ordinance violates the state law intended to ban local LGBT protections, and could rule on whether that state law should stand. The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, was asked last week to review a state ruling preventing same-sex couples from getting both spouses listed on their child’s birth certificate without a court order.
The shell bill filed last week may be only one part of the debate. Other ideas floated among lawmakers would focus on public school restrooms and increasing penalties for crimes in public bathrooms.
“It’s a definite thing that there’s going to be a bathroom bill pursued,” Standridge said. “We just don’t know if it’s going to be our bill or someone else’s bill.”
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