“We want [business leaders] here, but we want them to be vocal about their opposition, to put their money where their mouths are, and actually support candidates who believe in science, who want to protect constitutional rights, who want to ensure nondiscriminatory policies, who want to have an educated, competitive workforce.”
—Texas state Rep. Donna Howard
For many, Texas—and the capital city of Austin in particular—has a lot to offer: some of the best live music in the country; a relatively low cost of living; lower taxes and fewer business regulations; a mild climate coupled with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities; and more. It’s no wonder then that more than half a million people relocated to Texas from other states, according to the 2021 Texas Relocation Report, and in May, Austin was deemed the fastest growing major metro in the U.S.
Then along came Senate Bill 8—one of the nation’s most extreme abortion bans that criminalizes abortions after just six weeks gestation and deputizes private citizens to enforce the law. This bill was passed in tandem with S.B. 1, a restrictive voting bill which limits vote-by-mail, boosts protections for partisan poll watchers and scales back local voting initiatives meant to make it easier to vote and disproportionately used by voters of color.
What effect will these laws have on native Texans, new Texans and potential Texans? Will they slow the growth of business?
Preliminary reports show the brain drain has already begun, and is likely to continue, as a result of these restrictive laws. According to a poll conducted by PerryUndem:
- Overall, two-thirds of college-educated adults said the Texas ban would discourage them from working in the state.
- 64 percent said they would not apply for a job in a state that has an abortion ban like the one passed in Texas. Younger workers seem acutely concerned with these laws: 73 percent of Gen-Zers (ages 24 and younger) said they would not take a job in a state with a law like S.B. 8 on the books, and 69 percent of millennials said the same.
- Three-quarters of women surveyed said S.B. 8 would discourage them from working in Texas, and 73 percent said they wouldn’t even apply for a job in a state that passed a comparable ban.
- Even among men, 58 percent said a state’s near-total abortion ban would discourage them from working there and 53 percent said they would not apply for jobs there.
- Disapproval for the six-week ban is also high among minority groups: 66 percent of Black, 63 percent of Latinx and 64 percent of Asian workers said they would not consider moving to a state with a ban like Texas.
Texas state Rep. Donna Howard (D)—an Austin native, a registered nurse and current chair of the Texas Women’s Health Caucus—has been outspoken about the potential and real harm of S.B. 8, S.B. 1 and the overall hard-right turn taking place in the Texas legislature. Howard spoke to Ms. about the impact of these laws and how businesses can stand up for Texas workers, both current and future.
Roxy Szal: There are so many companies either based in Texas or with satellite offices in Texas. Yet the corporate world has kept generally quiet about the Texas abortion law—even though 70 percent of Texans want Roe left alone.
There are, of course, a few exceptions. Last week, Salesforce, a San Francisco-based software company with a branch in Dallas, and Bospar, a tech PR company with offices in Texas, both pledged to help employees and their families relocate if they’re concerned about the ability to seek reproductive care. Lyft and Uber offered to pay legal fees for drivers who face potential lawsuits related to the new law. Online dating company Bumble started a fund to help people seeking abortions in the state.
But in the past, business leaders have come together and taken strong stands against bills they found unjust, from anti-trans bathroom bills to attacks on voting rights. In general, what do you think is keeping companies from being more outspoken and taking a public stance on the unprecedented law?
Rep. Donna Howard: The best I can come up with is that they are trying to preserve relationships with those that have had power over other aspects of their business.
Now, that being said, they did step up in a grand style in 2017 and helped prevent the bathroom bill from coming to fruition with the help of then-Speaker Joe Straus, who also stood firm with them.
It is disappointing that they’re not saying more right now, and pushing back on this, because this is something that can impact their ability to recruit and retain employees. Texas has one of the largest—second only to California—tech vacancies in the country, and it’s over 50 percent more than it was just a year ago. So, there’s already a challenge there with getting people to come here.
Then, when you’re looking at the accumulation of anti-constitutional rights legislation being passed over and over again here, it’s got to have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to consider Texas as a place to come.
You’re talking about depriving people of their constitutional right to vote.
You’re talking about depriving people of their constitutional right to their own bodily autonomy and destiny, by virtue of when and where they want to be pregnant and actually have a family. They have a constitutional right to that private decision.
It’s the issues of the vaccine and the pandemic—the fact that we have people dying at tremendous rates here in Texas. Our ICUs, some of them have been totally full, unable to take other patients who may have been in car wrecks, who may have had a heart attack, who may have had a stroke. There’s no room for them to be taken care of—and yet [Governor Greg Abbott] is still not following the science and is actually siccing the TABC, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, onto private businesses asking for some proof of vaccination before they allow in-restaurant dining, and they’re being threatened with losing their liquor license. It’s just incredible that [Gov. Abbott] is calling out President Biden for his regulations and mandates on vaccinations for businesses over 100 employees, when the governor himself is imposing his regulation on businesses that are keeping them from doing what they think is right.
The list just goes on and on. It’s actually incredible when you think about it: The GOP—supposedly the pro-business party, the constitutionalists—are being anti-constitutional, anti-science and discriminatory, imposing extreme right ideology that’s not within the mainstream of the majority.
It’s got to be just overwhelming to those who thought about moving to Texas and then see that they would have to worry about getting healthcare if they chose to. They would have to be worried about access to the vote. They’re going to have to worry about their kids going to schools where the schools are not allowed to protect the health and safety of their children.
I think S.B. 8 is the culmination, in a sense, of all these things that have been going on. People have been counting on the courts to intervene because that’s traditionally what’s happened, and then when it actually came to pass, and SCOTUS just allowed it to happen, it shocked people. It was a shocking display of Texas imposing right-wing ideology on those who live in the state without the usual recourse of the judicial system, and that’s quite frightening.
A lot of these folks that we would be recruiting to come to Texas—especially in the tech industry, the burgeoning industry we usually think about here—are primarily young, and a lot of them are of child-bearing age and have to think about how this is going to directly impact them. You’re talking about the ability to control your own body, make decisions about your own body. There’s a real personal connection now to what’s happening that must be giving people pause.
“It is disappointing that [business leaders] are not saying more right now, and pushing back on this, because this is something that can impact their ability to recruit and retain employees.”
Szal: What do you think are the best ways for companies to put pressure on the state government to stop these attacks on abortion access and other human rights? What would you like to say to CEOs in Texas or with offices in Texas who have stayed silent on this issue so far?
Howard: First off, I would tell them I do not want them to leave Texas. We want them here, but we want them to stay here and be vocal about their opposition, put their money where their mouths are, and actually support candidates who believe in science, who want to protect constitutional rights, who want to ensure nondiscriminatory policies, who want to have an educated, competitive workforce, who want to structure a power grid that’s based on being reliable above being profitable—just support candidates who are going to protect the health and safety of all Texans.
It’s really important that they stop supporting those who are currently in power when they apparently vehemently disagree with them. Keeping them in power is not the answer. We need to change who’s in power so that we shift the trajectory our state is going and get back to what’s really going to make us a prosperous state.
Szal: During the era of COVID, many people relocated or moved to Texas, and it looks like Californians, in particular, seem to be attracted to the state of Texas, particularly the capital city of Austin.
Are there any lessons from Texas to learn from the California recall, which was a blowout for Gov. Gavin Newsom—especially keeping in mind that Newsom ran on a pro-science, anti-Trump platform, and was carried largely by women voters? Do you think that there’s any sort of parallel to draw or comparison, or a lesson for Texas lawmakers, who are looking at this—or do you think it’s apples and oranges?
Howard: Certainly. The lesson is: Be careful what you wish for here.
I believe Republicans in Texas are the dogs that caught the tailpipe. I totally believe that what we’ve seen happen now in California is a preview of what we can expect to see happening in Texas, and I am extremely encouraged by the fact that we’re finally seeing people realize that they’re going to have to step up and make sure their voices are heard and that they give the strong message—as Californians have just done. Voters declared they do believe in science, they do believe in protecting the health and safety of all the people who are in their state.
I am extremely encouraged, and I do believe it portends well for what we might see happening here, because people here are angry. People here are frustrated—and that’s not just Democrats. That’s Republicans and Independents who are seeing that this is not the direction, and the polls are proving that this is not the direction that they want to see Texas going.
“What we’ve seen happen now in California is a preview of what we can expect to see happening in Texas, and I am extremely encouraged by the fact that we’re finally seeing people realize that they’re going to have to step up and make sure their voices are heard and that they give the strong message—as Californians have just done.
Szal: You and I talked about S.B. 8 in July, after it had passed but before it had taken effect, and it was working its way through the courts and various lawsuits. I, too, thought the courts were going to hold this up, like they have every other time—but obviously, they’ve been unsuccessful so far due to that provision in the law which deputizes private citizens.
It officially went into effect September 1, and the Supreme Court decided to punt this and let the law stand. It’s been in effect for two weeks, already having chilling effects on providers and those seeking abortions. On Tuesday night, the Biden administration formally asked a federal judge to block the enforcement of the law. So, what do you believe is the future of this bill?
Howard: I want to believe the federal government is going to step up and do whatever it takes to protect our constitutional rights.
I have to say, I’m a little jaded at this point when I saw what happened with our efforts to get Congress and the White House to step up for voting rights—though we’re seeing some movement now that’s very positive, and I still believe that we captured national attention that expedited some things happening.
At the same time, we really don’t have time to play around with this, and when we’re talking about S.B. 8, in particular, women and people who are pregnant are being denied access to their constitutionally guaranteed right to healthcare. They’re being denied that right now. They are being sacrificed to some procedural thing in the law that the Supreme Court has decided is not worth dealing with right now, to protect the constitutional rights of those people. I’m just blown away by that.
All that being said, I’m going to keep hoping whatever the attorney general can do, whatever President Biden can do, whatever Congress can do to codify what’s in Roe v. Wade, those actions will be taken. We have been dealing now for the past… I don’t know how long, but certainly we saw it front and center with our voting rights challenge and now with the abortion challenge, of putting procedural rules over the constitutional rights of people, including with the filibuster.
I don’t have the answers, but I am dismayed that this is dragging on and on, and to force women to be required to be vessels for a pregnancy, whether they want to be or not, while the lawyers and judges sort things out, who knows how long that’s going to take, it feels very dehumanizing to those that have this right now that they’re being deprived of. That’s just unbelievable to me.
Szal: What would you say to a loved one, a family member, a friend of a family member, who was considering a move to Texas right now?
Howard: I’ve lived in Texas my entire life, and I’m one of those who loves Texas despite all our flaws. I think we have so many opportunities here, so many wonderful natural resources. We have people with hearts as big as Texas here, and we also care about our neighbors and want to be good people.
I want people to come here. I want to encourage people to come here. I want them to come here and take advantage of those opportunities, take advantage of our natural resources, and raise their families here. But they’re going to have to know that with that comes a commitment. They’re going to have to ensure Texas does right by them—and so, now, more than ever, civic participation, voting, being a part of the process, is absolutely critical. But we need them here to do that.
Madison Gusler provided editorial assistance and research for this article.