State tourism officials hope legislature flushes bathroom bill

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 994 views 

State tourism officials Wednesday (Feb. 15) said the so-called “bathroom bill” filed on Valentine’s Day by two Republican state senators would dramatically impact Arkansas’ tourism and hospitality industries, causing convention and tourism business to flee the Natural State for friendlier parts of the country.

State Parks and Tourism Department Director Kane Webb, Little Rock Convention & Visitors President and CEO Gretchen Hall, and Montine McNulty, executive director of the Arkansas Hospitality Association, all offered strong rebukes of Senate Bill 346, a shell bill filed in the sixth week of the legislative session by Sens. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, and Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.

“Tourism is an industry built largely on the reputation of our state,” Webb told Talk Business & Politics. “It is also one of Arkansas’ biggest and fastest-growing industries, and as such, we are confident that the legislature will not take any action that would harm the tourism business.”

The controversial bill was filed despite Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s caution — after similar legislation was passed in North Carolina and ahead of the legislative session — that such bills were counterproductive and would detract from more important issues that the legislature must tackle.

In May, Hutchinson first addressed the transgender bathroom bill when he worked with fellow Republican legislators to keep such legislation off the agenda of a special session to address the state’s highway needs. When questioned about the possibility of a so-called “bathroom bill” being introduced during a meeting with reporters on Jan. 4, Hutchinson again reiterated that he had advised lawmakers during the session to remain focused on policy issues that are important to the state.

“I still don’t see a need for such legislation,” the governor told reporters.

Hall, the first tourism official to directly respond to controversial legislation, pointed to Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s stance.

“Like Gov. (Asa) Hutchinson, we feel this type of legislation is unnecessary,” Hall said in a news release. “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. Based on the backlash in North Carolina after passage of similar legislation, business we’ve secured in the past will not return.”

McNulty noted that Arkansas welcomed more than 28 million visitors to the state last year. She said the AHA will oppose the bill if it is amended to mirror what North Carolina passed and Texas is dealing with now.

“Such legislation could do great economic damage to our state and negatively affect economic development, jobs and attracting conventions and future sporting events. This potential type of legislation has proven to negatively affect state and local economies,” McNulty said.

Hall also noted recent reports from tourism officials in North Carolina who say that state has suffered at least $400 million in lost business.

“[The] NCAA has moved several tournaments; multiple companies have abandoned expansion plans or chosen not to locate within the state, resulting in thousands of lost jobs and millions in revenue,” she said.

A year ago, North Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that stipulated that transgender students must use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their birth certificates. The Obama administration instructed state educators to allow equal access for transgender students based on their preferred gender identity – a directive that Hutchinson has said in the past should be ignored.

In past weeks, lawmakers in Texas and Tennessee have also introduced bills to restrict the rights of transgender person. Proposed legislation in those states would require all persons to use bathrooms that correspond to the sex on their birth certificate.

The Little Rock tourism chief said that travel and tourism provides a huge economic boost to Pulaski County and the entire state. She said travel spending in Pulaski County alone totaled $1.8 billion in 2015 with more than $100 million in tax revenue generated for state and local governments. More specifically, she said events like the NCAA Men’s & Women’s Basketball Championships and the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament totaled more than $8.5 million in economic impact for Central Arkansas.

According to a recent report highlighted by Hall and other industry officials, the Meeting Professionals Institute found that that 25% of the group’s membership said they would cancel or relocate their meetings to other states if these type laws are implemented. In addition, a report by the Texas Association Business said the recently filed bathroom bill could cost the Lone Star State as much as $8.5 billion in lost economic activity and 185,000 jobs.

However, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other supporters have said those economic models are flawed and overstate the impact to the state that recently hosted the Super Bowl championship. Still, Gov. Hutchinson and Arkansas tourism and hospitality officials are especially pensive about such legislation after reporting record-setting industry tallies over the past two years.

In July, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported that Arkansas led the nation in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) among the 50 states at 3.9%, led by a 2.21 percentage point contribution from the state’s agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector.

“We are leading the Arkansas economy in a lot of different ways, and that is exciting for our industry,” McNulty said recently of the state’s 113,000-count service sector that employs workers in the hotel, restaurant, arts and entertainment industries. “We’ve been leading in tax collection, in job creation and it’s really been a really good two years and hopefully it will continue.”

That economic highpoint was later followed up by a state Parks and Tourism Department report in September that Arkansas hosted a record 28 million visitors spending $7.2 billion in total travel expenditures, $374 million in state taxes and $137 million in local taxes in 2015. The economic impact of travel and tourism on the state’s economy showed an 8.69% increase in total travel expenditures.

That same report also shows growth in tourism jobs has tracked with the gains in statewide tourism tax collections, officials said. For example, Arkansas’ travel and tourism industry generated payroll that has grown from $240 million in 1979 to $1.3 billion in 2015, an increase of 447.6% over the last 36 years.

Standridge couldn’t be reached for comment concerning SB346. His one-paragraph bill, which simply states “concerns gender identity and bathroom privileges,” has been referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary but is not yet listed on the calendar.