Top brass at the Metro Atlanta Chamber say avoiding more controversy over “religious liberty” or “religious exemption” legislation is a top priority when the state Legislature reconvenes in January.
SunTrust Banks Executive Vice President Jenner Wood, outgoing chairman of the chamber’s board, said Wednesday that the conversation alone over the legislation, which critics deride as discriminatory toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, damages the state’s reputation and economic progress.
Last March, the state House and Senate passed HB 757, igniting days of unblinking media coverage and calls by business leaders and civil rights groups for Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the measure. He did so a few days after the session ended.
Deal’s veto angered many in the Republican base, and supporters of the legislation have vowed a new battle in 2017.
“We are not supportive of any bill that in any way would discriminate against any person,” Wood said in a media briefing ahead of the chamber’s annual meeting.
The business coalition has been one of the more forceful voices for the past three years against various bills that supporters say better protect the faithful from government intrusion, but which critics call a thinly-veiled attempt to discriminate against the LGBT community.
Wood pointed to the controversy that swirled around North Carolina after that state passed a law barring transgender people from using public bathrooms for the sex they identify as.
The NBA and NCAA moved marquee events from the state. Georgia beat out the Tar Heel state for jobs deals including a software hub for GE Digital and a Honeywell division headquarters and software center.
The jobs wins, which officials and recruiters have said were helped by Georgia’s stance, give the Deal administration and its allies new ammunition in a rematch this winter.
JeffSprecher, CEO of Intercontinental Exchange and the chamber board chairman for 2017, said global companies want to recruit top talent worldwide and want prospects to feel welcome.
Chamber officials also said continued advocacy for transit expansion and improvement will be another priority. That could include rail in North Fulton County, DeKalb and more seamless integration of local transit providers.
The chamber hailed the city of Atlanta’s passage in November of a half-penny sales tax to expand MARTA.
Fulton County Chairman John Eaves has said MARTA expansion in the county, particularly a line up Ga. 400 to Alpharetta, is crucial and that the county would work towards legislation allowing voters to consider a quarter-penny sales tax for transit in areas of Fulton outside of the city of Atlanta.
“The next steps would be to look to North Fulton and see if expansion could happen there,” said Katie Kirkpatrick, chamber chief policy officer. “The second piece is how can we expand transit east into DeKalb County, and perhaps connect the area around the CDC and Emory [University] into the downtown area of Atlanta.”
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed implored the more than 1,300 business and civic leaders at Wednesday’s meeting to continue pushing the region forward. He asked leaders to help ensure Atlanta remains a welcoming city with opportunities for all people.
He also touted major business wins, such as GE Digital and Honeywell, and the recent vote in Atlanta to expand MARTA.
Reed said MARTA expansion will reshape the city over coming decades, and that conversation about expansion is now about economics rather than politics, citing major corporate expansions such as State Farm in Dunwoody and others intown near MARTA stations.
“What that does is it takes it out of politics,” Reed said.
The messages Wednesday were much in line with three pillars — grow, advocate and promote the region — outlined by chamber CEO Hala Moddelmog and other top officials.
The chamber said its strategic vision is to keep Georgia a top state in which to do business and recruit and retain companies, particularly in fields such as financial technology, cybersecurity, health and the Internet of Things.
On the advocacy side, the chamber said it will continue efforts to improve the region’s quality of life and help people in need, recruit talented workers and oppose legislation “that does not cultivate a business-friendly climate.”
The chamber soon will move out of its home at Centennial Olympic Park into leased space in downtown’s 191 Peachtree building. Also on Wednesday, the chamber announced new branding with a more modern looking rising phoenix logo. The bird includes 29 feathers, one for each county the chamber represents and promotes.