More than 250 MT businesses sign letter of opposition to LGBTQ bills

The letter warns of the possible harm it would cause to state businesses and the economy

A large group gathers at the Montana Capitol on March 15, 2021 during a LGBTQ rally (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

More than 250 companies and organizations doing business in Montana — including Chicago-based Molson Coors, which has contracts with state barley growers, and Missoula high-tech firm Submittable — signed a letter telling the Montana Legislature a slate of bills they say discriminate against LGBTQ people will harm their employees and their financial performance.

“As businesses and organizations that support equality for all, we’ve done our part to make sure our employees will be protected at work,” reads the letter provided to the Daily Montanan. “But these bills would harm our team members and their families as they navigate daily life and utilize services and opportunities that should be available for everyone.”

The bills mentioned in the letter — House Bills 112 and 427 and Senate Bills 215 and 280 — would regulate transgender healthcare and sports participation, put in place a statewide Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and create more hoops for transgender people looking to change their gender on their birth certificate.

The growing list of 264 businesses ranging from Tongue River Winery in Miles City to Bellweather Jewelry in Babb to the Downtown Bozeman Partnership had signed on to the letter by Tuesday afternoon.

“We are deeply concerned by the bills in the Montana Legislature that target LGBTQ individuals — specifically transgender youth — for exclusion or differential treatment,” the letter reads

Pushback from businesses and warnings of economic loss are commonplace when states consider the types of bills the Montana Legislature has introduced in this session. During hearings this session, opponents have outweighed supporters on the bills and have warned of deleterious economic impacts.

When talking to business owners, Shawn Reagor, a program director with the Montana Human Rights Network, said they wanted to do more to voice their opposition to these bills. The biggest concerns businesses had were around tourism and the message they send.

“They were concerned about mixed messages from the governor and the legislature saying the state is open for businesses but also advancing discriminatory bills that would harm business and the economy,” he said. “People don’t want [these bills] because they do not support Montana values. So much of the state has a ‘live and let live kind of attitude’ and this so clearly goes against that.”

In 2019, 12.6 million people visited Montana and spent $3.8 billion, according to the Montana Office of Tourism and Business Development. As one of the state’s leading industries, tourism and the visitors that come with it “add money to the state’s economy, supporting jobs and reducing state and local taxes for Montana residents,” a 2019 economic impact study stated.

“We do business in Montana for several reasons, but for many of us, it comes down to this: We love this state. We choose to live and do business here, and we want to keep providing good-paying jobs and opportunities to the wonderful people who also live here,” read the letter. “However, we will not compromise our values and stay silent regarding legislation that will negatively impact our employees, our customers, our competitiveness, and our communities.”

Whether LGBTQ people feel safe in a state can hurt tourism, said Jessica Shortall, director of corporate engagement for America Competes, a national, nonpartisan business coalition for non-discrimination.

Having laws in place like the ones Montana is considering can be the difference in a small town hosting a convention, a tourist choosing to visit, or a business selecting Montana as a place to grow, she said.

“Nobody’s arguing that the entire economy of a state is going to disappear in the blink of an eye, but in a situation where states are competing for tourism business, workers, and the economy of the future, it does not make any sense to lop off that competitive advantage and give yourself a competitive disadvantage,” she said.

A statement from the Montana High Tech Alliance issued a similar warning to Shortall’s in a statement regarding HB112. It said anti-LGBTQ+ bills could “significantly hamper” the state’s ability to recruit and retain top talent.

“Every year in our surveys, tech leaders report that their biggest barrier to growth is access to talent. Controversial social legislation makes it difficult for businesses to advertise that our state provides the safe, open, and inclusive environment necessary for a successful technology workplace,” the statement read.

In the last decade, companies have not been shy about voicing their displeasure with bills they view as discriminatory.

The 2015 signing of a RFRA bill in Indiana may have cost Indianapolis $60 million, the city’s nonprofit tourism association said. The number comes from 12 conventions that cited RFRA as a reason for not choosing the city.

Additionally, the Indianapolis-based company Angie’s List cited the RFRA bill as a reason for canceling a $40 million headquarters expansion.

The Associated Press estimated that North Carolina’s signing of the HB2, the “Bathroom Bill,” cost the state nearly $4 billion in collateral damage. It also led to Paypal canceling a $3.76 billion investment, and the National Basketball Association pulling the state from hosting the All-Star game.

But the losses that could hit closest to home were the financial repercussions from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven championship events from the state, including first and second round March Madness events.

While a Bathroom Bill is not on the docket for Montana this session, opponents have warned that if the state passes HB112, which would restrict transgender women from participating on cis-gendered women’s athletic teams, the state could lose out on millions of dollars.

Among other things, the economic loss would come from the NCAA not allowing playoff football games to be played in Montana, which bring in millions of dollars to the hosting communities. According to a 2016 report from the University of Montana, each home football game brings about $2.5 million of spending into Missoula from out-of-area attendees.

The possibility of lawsuits from the NCAA is one reason South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem declined to sign its version of HB112.

At a press conference Monday, she said it was likely the association would bring punitive action against the state, and she didn’t like the state’s chances: “South Dakota’s chances of winning a lawsuit against the NCAA are very low.”

The punitive action, she said, means “they can pull their tournaments from the state of South Dakota, they could pull their home games, they could even prevent our athletes from playing in their league.”

When stories of companies and athletic associations announcing they are avoiding business in a particular state make headlines, it makes it harder to recruit people, Shortall said.

“We hear from businesses all the time that … it is harder when states make headlines for what folks in the LGBTQ community would see as targeting them … it makes it harder to convince really sought-after people to come and live and work there,” she said.

According to the Movement Advancement Project, which advocates for non-discrimination causes, there are about 18,000 LGBTQ workers in Montana, and about 2.9 percent of the state’s adults identify as LGBTQ. But even without the passage of the proposed legislation, the project gave Montana a low grade for its laws and policies protecting the LGBTQ community.

“We call on public leaders in business and elected office to oppose discriminatory legislation and ensure fairness and safety for all Montanans. As job creators who are constantly taking the pulse of economic viability of our state, we reject legislation that stifles opportunity and optimal financial growth by telling some people that they don’t belong here as their full, talented selves,” the letter said.