Travel ban press conference at Waterfront Park | Photo by Melissa Chipman

A ban on state-funded travel to Kentucky called for by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has brought nationwide attention to a new law about religious or political expression in schools that could allow LGBTQ+ discrimination. This recently caused two large conventions to withdraw plans to come to Louisville.

At a press event Thursday attended by representatives from the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Sports Commission, UPS, Brown-Forman and Greater Louisville Inc., Mayor Greg Fischer expressed concern with the growing economic and reputational impact that this negative attention might have on the city.

“Convention planners might just accept that because of the ban, that our city practices discrimination,” he said.

These conventions, both from groups headquartered in Chicago, would have accounted for more than $2 million in economic impact according to Karen Williams, president and chief executive of the LCVB. She declined to identify the conventions. Both canceled plans while in “contractual negotiations” with Louisville hotels, she said. Combined they would have accounted for around 4,300 room nights. One convention in 2018 was a medical convention, one in 2020 was a “very prestigious research” convention, Williams said.

Williams also said that two trade magazines had reached out to the bureau for comment on the travel ban and that these publications are read by meeting and convention planners nationwide.

Becerra announced that Kentucky was one of several states to be banned from official state-funded travel due to laws that he said discriminated agaisnt LGBT people. He specifically cited Senate Bill 17 — passed into law by the Kentucky General Assembly this year and going into effect this week — which “could allow student-run organizations in colleges and K-12 schools to discriminate against classmates based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

On Saturday, Fischer contacted Becerra and asked for Louisville to be exempted from the state-funded travel ban, arguing that the city has often been a pioneer of civil rights in the South and has had a 100 score with the Human Rights Campaign for two years in a row.

Lexington’s Mayor Jim Gray followed suit on June 27.

Fischer has also been in touch with state legislators about clarifying the language of the bill to assure that it will not cause discrimination against LGTBQ+ individuals. He said he spoke with Attorney General Andy Beshear Thursday morning, but that he had not talked to Gov. Matt Bevin about the bill because “it’s a legislative issue.”

However, Gov. Bevin has already expressed that he disagrees that the ban could impact the state negatively.

“I think it will be about effective as nothing,” Gov. Bevin told WDRB. “I think we will have plenty of people from California coming here. I think we’ll probably have more now as a result of this. I appreciate the publicity, and what I can guarantee you, while the attorney general is attempting to limit travel here, I will be doing lots of business recruiting companies to come to Kentucky.”

Fischer added that any lost convention also means less money for the Tax Increment Financing district that helps fund the KFC Yum! Center and the new Omni Hotel. Louisville tourism generates about $1.5 billion tax revenue for the state.

Karl Schmitt of the Sports Commission added that while the commission hadn’t seen any impact yet, that it could happen “very, very quickly,” and reminded people that similar laws perceived as discriminatory caused the NCAA to pull events from Indiana and North Carolina.

Sarah Davasher-Wisdom, chief operating officer of GLI, placed the blame for the loss of the conventions entirely on California’s AG.

She said that Louisville’s commitment to compassion, fairness and equality “is a boost to our city’s economic development efforts, given that cities that are inclusive are increasingly winning in the competition for residents, businesses and employees.”

Phil Lynch, a vice president at Brown-Forman, had strong words for the state about the laws. “We need our state to treat our citizens fairly,” he said. He noted the company was one of 517 in the United States to receive a perfect corporate equity score from the Human Rights campaign.

“Business thrives when all of our employees can be themselves,” he said.