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California bill that swaps travel ban for LGBTQ+ awareness campaign progresses

The California Senate approved a measure that would repeal a law prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars for travel to states that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in favor of spending on programs to foster acceptance.

Senate Bill 447, authored by Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, passed out of the Senate on a 31-8 vote Thursday as the Legislature comes down to the wire with bills needing to pass their first house by Friday to stay alive.

The bill now heads to the Assembly, and would need to pass there, and be signed by the governor, to become law.

An unprecedented number of bills discriminating against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people “have been introduced this year alone — and my heart hurts for all of the folks in other states where this is happening,” Atkins said. “This bill is about reaching out to them with messages of support and understanding, and at the same time, helping to open hearts and minds so that acceptance, instead of animosity, wins the day.”

SB 447 would create a donation-driven fund that could be used to produce public service advertisements. Called the BRIDGE Project — Building and Reinforcing Inclusive, Diverse, Gender-Supportive Equality — the bill would help California champion compassion and outreach to people isolated by anti-LBGTQ+ policies, Atkins said.

It authorizes GO-Biz, the governor’s office of economic development, to contract with a private, nonprofit agency to create advertisements that would run in other states tapping donated services where possible. GO-Biz estimated it would incur annual staffing costs of $538,000 if the bill passes, though it anticipates a significant portion of advertising monies would come through donations, according to a Senate analysis.

“I grew up in a conservative, rural community in southwestern Virginia, with deep ties in the church,” Atkins said. “My parents didn’t understand at first when I came out, but they loved me, and their acceptance grew because of it. That’s the thing — people are more accepting when it’s someone they know. The BRIDGE Project can help foster that connectivity.”

Atkins bill would replace Assembly Bill 1887, which restricts state agencies, departments, boards, and commissions from using taxpayer funds for non-essential travel to states that have adopted discriminatory anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

The travel ban was well intentioned, and was successful in bringing attention to the discriminatory practices in other states at the time, according to Atkins, but as the years passed, it had the unintended effect of hampering Californians from being able to conduct research, business, and engage with all people from those states.

The ban was introduced in 2016 amid a national outcry over a North Carolina law preventing transgender people from using restrooms that aligned with their gender identity. The boycott was a way to fight back against the discriminatory laws passed in such states, but also to prevent people, discriminated against, from being forced through their jobs to travel to places they would feel unsafe, its author, Assemblyman Evan Low, said at the time.

But its unintended affects including prompting California lawmakers to use political donations to attend the National Conference of State Legislatures when the association met in Tennessee a few years back, according to a Senate analysis. Gov. Gavin Newsom also was criticized last summer when his family vacationed in Montana, one of the 23 states on the list, because his security detail was required to work in the state.

Under the travel ban law, the Attorney General’s office is required to post a current list of states that have enacted such laws on its website. That number has grown from four states in 2016, to 23 states today.

Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, past chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ+ Caucus, said he fully supports Atkin’s decision to lift the travel ban, because while it was a powerful tool at inception, “it is clear in recent years it has not worked in influencing state legislatures across the nation to end ongoing attacks on LGBTQ+ and TGI rights.”

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