In the end, Houston Mayor Annise Parker appears to have compromised.
Parker included private-sector employment protections in a proposed Equal Rights Ordinance unveiled Monday — something LGBT advocates have pushed hard for since learning she was considering leaving them out.
But Parker’s proposed ordinance would exempt companies with fewer than 50 employees — a number more than three times as high as the cutoff of 15 found in most other nondiscrimination laws — from Dallas’ to Austin’s to the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Maverick Welsh, president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, said Monday night that for now, he’s just pleased that the mayor included private-sector employment protections. But he also suggested the ordinance could still be amended to make the cutoff lower.
“That was a real big push on the part of our community to make sure that was in there, so it’s encouraging,” Welsh said. “It would be great if it were 15, but it just depends on what happens at the council table really. Up to this point, I didn’t know if they were going to include [private-sector employment] or not, and many, many people in our community have been crying out for it.”
Asked about the exemption for businesses with fewer than 50 employees, Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said in an email Tuesday: “There are two federal thresholds, 15 and 50. 50 was selected after input from stakeholders.”
Evans said Parker wasn’t available for further comment.
In addition to setting the cutoff higher for number of employees, Parker eliminated a Human Rights Commission that was included in her initial proposal. Instead, complaints would be investigated by the Office of Inspector General, under the City Attorney’s Office. Violations would be punishable by a maximum $500 fine, with the cap set at $5,000 for ongoing offenses.
In addition to private-sector employment discrimination, Parker’s proposal would ban anti-LGBT discrimination citywide in housing and public accommodations. It would also ban discrimination in city employment and by city contractors. Houston is the only major city in Texas, and one of only a few nationwide, that lack citywide LGBT protections.
Parker announced plans for the Equal Rights Ordinance during her re-election campaign last fall, and repeated them in her inauguration speech in January. But earlier this month, she hinted at leaving out private-sector employment protections, reportedly because they didn’t have enough votes to pass the council. That led to a series of action alerts from LGBT groups encouraging people to call their council members and ask them to support private sector employment protections.
“Council members are receiving hundreds of calls a day for each office,” Welsh said. “The community’s very, very mobilized.”
Welsh said he now expects the council to pass the ordinance overwhelmingly when it comes up for a vote next month, but opponents may attempt a ballot measure to repeal it.
“There’s always going to be fight,” Welsh said. “They may even force a referendum, but I think registered voters in Houston are overwhelmingly in favor of something like this. Of course there’s probably going to be a fight, but I think we win.”
If the referendum were to appear on the November ballot, Welsh said, it could provide a boost to the Democratic ticket.
“I think it does nothing but help Wendy Davis,” he said. “It is basically an inverted wedge issue. … I think it drives progressive and liberal voters out and gets them to vote.”
Read the full text of the proposed ordinance here. The mayor’s office has also set up an information and feedback page for the ordinance here. Watch video of the press conference where Parker unveiled the ordinance here.