San Francisco ended its travel ban to conservative states. Could others be next?

The Salesforce Tower and the San Francisco skyline behind the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk on Sunday, July 14, 2019.
The Salesforce Tower and the San Francisco skyline behind the Golden Gate Bridge at dusk on Sunday, July 14, 2019. | Scott Strazzante, San Francisco Chronicle via Associated Press

After nearly seven years, San Francisco’s ban on city-funded travel to conservative states has been rescinded. The reason? The city’s board of supervisors voted to ax the policy after a report found it was potentially costing the city money and contracts and wasn’t working as intended.

San Francisco’s policy, named Chapter 12X, was passed in 2016 and was meant to pressure states to not pass laws that San Francisco lawmakers considered anti-LGBTQ. Chapter 12X initially banned contracts and city-funded travel to four states, but since then, the list of banned states has grown to include states with other policies they found objectionable related to abortion and restrictive voting laws. Missouri and Utah were the latest to be added to the city’s list, which as of last September included 30 states, or over half the U.S.

“I’m not sure to what extent people really ever thought this was going to have much of an impact on the policies of other states, but it was sort of making a statement,” said Alan Auerbach, director of the Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance at the University of California, Berkeley.

Other travel bans

San Francisco isn’t alone in passing policy-based travel bans. California and more than a dozen other states passed their own travel bans to North Carolina in response to a so-called bathroom bill in 2016 that banned local governments from expanding anti-discrimination policies beyond state law. Businesses including Adidas, the NBA and PayPal also pushed back, and the legislation cost North Carolina an estimated $3.76 billion before then-Gov. Roy Cooper, a Republican, repealed it.

Success in toppling the North Carolina law might have encouraged state and local officials to pursue a similar strategy for other issues, but not all subsequent pressure campaigns came with the full force of business interests, and the tactic has proven less effective over time.

“When states lose a convention, you know, lose a political convention or a Super Bowl, or you know, something like that, I think that can have a big impact,” Auerbach said. “But when the city of San Francisco says we’re not going to pay for our people to go to a conference in a particular state, I just don’t think that’s going to have a big enough impact and so it’s mostly affecting the government and the city that’s adopting the policy.”

California’s policy, which grew to include a ban on state-funded travel to 23 states, has affected academics and student-athletes at state-owned schools who can’t travel to conferences or competitions in states on the banned list using state funds. It also upset conservative elected officials. Texas challenged the California’s ban in a case the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately rejected a request to hear, and in 2020, Oklahoma’s Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt responded to California’s ban with an executive order banning state-funded travel to the Golden State.

San Francisco ban not effective

San Francisco Board President Aaron Peskin called Chapter 12X a “well-intentioned effort at values-based contracting,” in a statement to CBS News, but said it “ultimately did not accomplish the social change it sought to effect.” That the city’s list of banned states grew instead of shrunk spoke to its ineffectiveness.

San Francisco’s budget and legislative analyst’s office found in its report on Chapter 12X and California’s state travel ban that full and open competition for contracts can bring savings of up to 20%. The report estimated the policy resulted in a reduced number of bids and higher costs for the city.

The report found there were also plenty of holes when it came to enforcement. Between July 2021 and July 2022, 35 city departments had approved 538 waivers totaling more than $791 million for contracts and purchase orders for companies in banned states.

Political pressure campaigns from businesses and state and local governments today, like the battle between Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Disney or messaging bills in red and blue meant to make a statement about a state’s predominant politics, are informed by the travel bans of yesterday. What some might dismiss as virtue signaling can help elected officials score political points, but it can also cost governments money, as San Francisco and DeSantis learned.

Might San Francisco’s about face signal the beginning of the end of an era, though? California Senate leader Toni Atkins, a Democrat, told The Associated Press she thought polarization wasn’t working, saying, “We need to adjust our strategy.” In March, she introduced a bill that would replace the state’s travel with a donation-funded ad campaign about acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQ community. Its name? The BRIDGE Project.