Georgia still on his mind - Benioff to move Connections conference unless anti-gay bill vetoed

Profile picture for user slauchlan By Stuart Lauchlan March 17, 2016
Summary:
Georgia's Republican senators have pushed through HB 757, a 'bigot's charter' to permit anti-gay discrimination across the state. All eyes are now on Governor Nathan Deal to veto the Bill before Salesforce and others have to take some tough decisions.

Marc Benioff
Marc Benioff

Well, they did it. Despite pressure from over 480 businesses and national and international outrage at their actions, Georgia’s senators have voted to pass House Bill 757, permitting legal discrimination against gay people if exercised as a result of faith-based beliefs.

The Bill passed 104-65, divided along party lines, in the General Assembly, with only one hour allocated for debate. After the vote passed, the state Republican Party praised the outcome, with Georgia Republican Party Chairman John Padgett saying:

During our 2015 State Convention in Athens, Georgia Republicans overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Under the Gold Dome, Republican leadership and members of the General Assembly have worked tirelessly to craft legislation that protects people of faith without sanctioning discrimination of any kind. This compromise bill does just that. HB 757 is appropriate, fair, and good for Georgia.

We applaud and thank state lawmakers for listening to grassroots Republicans and for working together to pass this vitally important piece of legislation before Sine Die.

All eyes are now on Salesforce and CEO Marc Benioff, who has become the public face of business opposition to the bill since he weighed in on the subject via Twitter last month. He was pulling no punches in the wake of the passing of the Bill late Wednesday.

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His campaigning previously won the endorsement of the likes of Dell’s Michael Dell, Microsoft’s Brad Smith and Virgin’s Richard Branson, who joined hundreds of other businesses in condemning Georgia’s legislature for allowing the Bill to progress. 

This week, those voices have been joined by the CEOs of the likes of Intel and Live Nation and Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post. 

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Veto now?

Salesforce has some serious skin in this debate as a result of employing staff in the state following its acquisition of Exact Target, which had itself acquired Atlanta-based Pardot, and the expansion of its regional hub in the city's Buckhead area.

Benioff says he is not prepared to have Salesforce employees or customers discriminated against and has warned that he will pull the firm’s investment in Georgia if the Bill is not urgently vetoed by State Governor Nathan Deal.

What happens next is the big question - or rather, how quickly what happens next can happen. Governor Deal has indicated previously that he is minded to veto any Bill "allows discrimination in our state in order to protect people of faith”, saying:

We do not have a belief, in my way of looking at religion, that says that we have to discriminate against anybody.

He’s made no direct comment since Wednesday night’s passing of the Bill, although a spokesperson for his office said:

The Governor has been clear on the issue and will review the legislation in April during bill review.

In fact, the Governor now has until 3 May to exercise his veto. If he uses that time available, it's not  great timing for Salesforce, which is scheduled to run its Connections digital marketing conference in Atlanta a week later, from 10-12 May.

Unless Deal acts quickly, Salesforce faces a dilemma. Benioff has polled his Twitter followers and won a clear mandate to pull Connections out of Georgia if HB 757 remains in place. But if that’s to happen this year, a decision is going to have to be made well before 3 May.

In a corporate statement last night, Salesforce confirmed that its position has not changed and called for Governor Deal to take action:

Salesforce is calling on Governor Deal to veto HB 757 because the legislation creates an environment of discrimination and makes the state of Georgia seem unwelcoming to same sex couples and the LGBTQ community.

We were encouraged by Governor Deal's recent comments that he would veto any bill that allows the perception of discrimination and we are now calling on him to stand by his comments and move quickly to veto HB 757.

If HB 757 is not vetoed and instead becomes law, Salesforce will have to reduce investments in Georgia, including moving the Salesforce Connections conference to a state that provides a more welcoming environment for the LGBTQ community.

What price discrimination?

The commercial impact of such an action, combined with that of other businesses and convention organisers, would be bad news for Georgia. When Indiana attempted to pass similar legislation last year, it cost the state 12 conventions and $60 million dollars, according to tourist agency VisitIndy.

Business lobbyist group the Metro Atlanta Chamber fears the same thing will happen in Georgia if the Bill is not vetoed, stating:

This legislation is in conflict with the values of diversity and inclusion that Georgians hold dear and could erode Georgia’s hard-earned status as the No. 1 state for business and would harm our ability to create and keep jobs that Georgia families depend upon.

Certainly Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed recognises the dangers, telling Georgia media the morning after HB 757 passed, that he faced hours of calls with convention organisers threatening to cancel their events, as well as face-to-face meetings with tech CEOs in the coming days. He added:

I can’t express the amount of damage that is being done to Atlanta and Georgia’s reputation as the business center and cultural center of the Southeast. I’m not going to pretend that this bill or the amendments to the bill will mitigate the terrible harm that is being done to our city, our region, our state by this legislation.

The Mayor’s Office issued a formal statement on his behalf that makes it clear that it regards HB 757 as a threat to the economic well-being of Georgia:

HB 757 impairs our ability to recruit major corporate headquarters, startups, small and medium-sized businesses. Nearly every corporate, non-profit, academic leader and entrepreneur I’ve spoken with is concerned that its passage will harm their client relationships and their ability to hire world-class talent in Atlanta.

As one of the five most visited cities in the United States, I am also gravely concerned about the negative impact this legislation has on the City of Atlanta’s ability to compete for conventions and major events such as the Super Bowl, which will be worth billions to our economy in the future.

HB 757 does not represent or uphold our city’s rich history of diversity and inclusion. This bill should not become the law of our state.

Meanwhile Chad Griffin, President of the Human Rights Campaign, weighed in with the claim that:

Shockingly, the decision by the legislature…was to make an egregious and discriminatory bill even worse. It's appalling that anti-equality extremists in the legislature are trying to ignore the will of the people of Georgia, and to empower businesses with the explicit right to discriminate and deny service to LGBT Americans.

But of course Governor Deal will also have to take into account lobbying from supporters of the legislation, who are opposed to "progressive forces".

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The Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has a mission statement of “Restoring America’s Greatness and Founding Principles”, has already launched a ‘robo-call’ campaign to Georgia citizens, urging them to phone Deal’s office and tell him to support the Bill.

Virginia Galloway, the group’s Southern regional director, says that she regards HB 757 as “very reasonable” and that it respects “the rights of all people”.

As for the threats of corporate withdrawal from Benioff et al, these are, according to her, just:

Hyperbole.

Meanwhile Josh McKoon, the Republican Senator who’s been the driving force behind the Bill passing, hit out at Benioff and other business leaders, alleging they are akin to gangsters “running a protection racket”.

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My take

Hyperbole? I suspect Galloway is in for one hell of a shock, unless Governor Deal follows through ASAP on his commitment not to support discriminatory legislation. It's just unfortunate that she'll be helping to damage the Georgia economy while learning this lesson.  HB 757 transparently does not respect “the rights of all people”, whatever Galloway might claim. Rather, it’s completely discriminatory and open to abuse.

For its part, Salesforce has a tough decision to make about Connections this year. The best outcome would be for Deal to prioritise a veto, but he’s going to be coming under huge pressure from supporters of the Bill, especially in what is a febrile election year when passions are already running high. If he delays a veto decision, the timing is bad for Benioff and his team in terms of the logistics of potential cancellation or movement of the conference. We'll just have to wait and see what decisions are reached. 

For any civilised state to find itself having to deal with this self-engineered mess in 2016 beggars belief.  Again, diginomica stands firmly with Salesforce - and Coca Cola, Home Depot, Live Nation, Virgin and all the other opponents of this odious bigot’s charter - in the essential battle against such repressive and backward-looking legislation.