By Catarina Saraiva and Brendan Case | Bloomberg
In the past decade, Texas attracted almost 4 million people and a cavalcade of employers thanks to low taxes, lax regulation and thriving cities. But a defiant attitude toward Covid restrictions, new limits on voting access and now the nation’s strictest abortion law could undermine its appeal for future moves.
Companies including Apple Inc., Toyota Motor Corp. and Tesla Inc. have moved operations and college-educated, creative-class workers to Texas in recent years; enclaves like Austin and Houston’s Montrose neighborhood felt a little like San Francisco with withering humidity. Now, those workers find themselves in a state taking far-right stances in a culture war with national ramifications for women’s autonomy and presidential politics.
“Other states are competing for people,” said Tammi Wallace, chief executive officer of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “If you look at what our state is doing, and then you see another state where they’re not doing some of those things, you might say, ‘Well, the money’s good, but where do I want to raise my family?’”
In an interview on CNBC, Republican Governor Greg Abbott defended the new restrictions on voting and abortion rights, saying “a lot of” businesses and residents like the laws. He also asserted that Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc. approves of the social policies in Texas.
In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a new Texas law outlawing most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The measure, which took effect Wednesday, is the tightest restriction in the nation.
No major companies spoke Wednesday about the law. But Bumble Inc., an online dating application based in the Texas capital of Austin, said on Instagram Wednesday night that it had created “a relief fund supporting the reproductive rights of women and people across the gender spectrum who seek abortions in Texas.”
The state now outlaws most abortions during the sixth week, before many women know they are pregnant. Challengers told the court that the measure would prohibit abortions for at least 85% of the women seeking one in the country’s second-most populous state.
The law’s enforcement mechanism lets private parties sue a clinic or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion, but doesn’t authorize government officials to sue alleged violators. Supporters of abortion access say that’s a way to skirt the high court’s Roe v. Wade decision — which stemmed from a Texas case — guaranteeing a right to the procedure. They fear it could become a national template.
“The Supreme Court has ignored 50 years of precedent by allowing abortion to become nearly impossible for patients to access in Texas,” Planned Parenthood said in a tweet Thursday. “The impact of this heinous abortion ban cannot be understated. We’ll never stop fighting to get our patients the care they need.”
Support for legal abortion is greater among those with more education, according to a Pew Research Center poll this spring. About 50% of those who completed high school or less support legal abortion, compared with about 71% of those with postgraduate degrees. Those are the workers Texas has been attracting.
Companies have played a major role in the politics of the Donald Trump era and its aftermath, as Republican governors have tried to court the ex-president’s loyalists, many of whom refuse to accept the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election and spurn public health measures. Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta after Georgia enacted restrictions on voting. In Florida, cruise lines have sparred with Governor Ron DeSantis over coronavirus vaccine mandates.
Several firms issued statements Wednesday condemning the Texas voting bill passed the evening before, which would prohibit many local policies established to aid voting during the pandemic. Critics say its aim is to depress the Democratic vote, particularly in heavily diverse cities such as Houston. Abbott has promised to sign the measure in the name of ballot security, and backers have said it actually makes voting easier.
Many major employers took a different view.
“The new Texas voting law restricts rather than expands access to voting,” said Anna Walker, vice president of public affairs for Levi Strauss & Co. The San Francisco company has stores in the state, and Walker said it would “continue to make sure all our U.S. employees are aware of changing voting laws and how that impacts where and how they vote, supporting them and their communities in their efforts to fully participate in our democracy.”
The bill puts an end to drive-thru voting, further curbs an already restricted mail-in voting program and empowers partisan poll watchers. The measure had already prompted a backlash earlier this year from major companies such as HP Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Fort Worth-based American Airlines Group Inc.
We “oppose any changes that would restrict eligible voters’ access to the ballot,” the businesses said in a statement in May. “Freedom is preserved in our democracy when we hold free and fair elections that protect the fundamental rights of all Texans.”
HP said Wednesday it would continue to support reforms that make it possible for more people to vote.
A spokesman for Apple said the company would have no comment. Toyota and Tesla didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Abbott’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday. In a prepared statement, he called the session that produced the voting bill “a monumental success.” In May, he said the abortion law “ensures the life of every unborn child with a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion.”
The elections bill, the abortion law, friction over transgender issues and school curriculum all add up, said Ray Perryman, a former economist at Baylor University in Waco who has been tracking the Texas economy for 40 years.
“Knowledge workers are overwhelmingly opposed to this sort of thing, and they are the single biggest resource for high growth companies,” Perryman said.
Abbott and his predecessor as governor, Rick Perry, have for years been aggressively courting companies from other states, particularly California, initially with little to show for it. But Tesla now has a new factory under construction in Austin, among other successes.
Texas’s ruling conservatives — no Democrat has been elected to statewide office since the early 1990s — have often been at odds with transplants from places like California, and with the state’s diverse cities. District lines have diluted votes from Houston, Austin and Dallas, which all have Democratic leaders, and empowered rural conservatives.
The Legislature has remained firmly in Republican control as have the two U.S. Senate seats. The state will gain two U.S. House seats after redistricting this year, and the process may solidify party control in Austin.
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