After five hours of negotiations among Republican legislators, the state Senate on Wednesday held a contentious debate on a bill that would repeal House Bill 2.
The bill containing repeal would also impose what Senate Republicans call a six-month “cooling off period” prohibiting local governments from regulating employment practices, public accommodations or access to restrooms, showers or changing facilities.
That provision proved to be a hitch for Democrats and opponents of HB2. They said it did not go far enough to meet a deal that had been struck with Charlotte earlier in the week to repeal the law in exchange for the city repealing its February anti-discrimination measure that prompted the legislature to pass HB2 in March.
Senate leader Phil Berger, who filed the bill, said on the Senate floor that the lengthy negotiations “provide some indication of how difficult an issue this has been. Anyone who has been in North Carolina or has observed what has happened over the past seven, eight months understands.”
Repealing HB2 would eliminate a controversial law that lost North Carolina millions of dollars in revenue and major sporting events in protest. The law forbids local governments from passing anti-discrimination measures stronger than state law that doesn’t protect people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And it requires people to use the bathroom corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, said the moratorium implies that the real goal of HB2 was to undermine employment discrimination protections, not restrict public restroom use.
“I think some of you don’t like the bill for political reasons,” Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, told Senate Democrats. “... It’s a shame that it’s come to that.”
Democrats objected to the six-month moratorium on local ordinances but Republican senators shut down their efforts to amend the bill without a vote.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat from Durham, objected to the six-month moratorium because it prevents cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination measures.
“It’s been said this presses the reset button,” McKissick said. “The problem is it only presses it halfway.”
“It’s HB2.2,” said Rep. Chris Sgro, a Democrat from Greensboro and executive director of an LGBT advocacy group. “It doubles down on discrimination. It does not repeal HB2. It doesn’t help us get the NCAA back. It doesn’t help us get the NBA back or PayPal. It means North Carolina remains deeply closed for business.”
If it passes the Senate, the bill would then head to the House, where members of the GOP caucus had also been meeting behind closed doors, bogged down by reluctant legislators who either supported the current law or were concerned that Charlotte’s city council wasn’t being straightforward about its intentions. All eyes had been on the House, where the repeal bill was expected to emerge.
In the morning, House Rules Chairman David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, said there wasn’t enough support for repeal in the GOP caucus to approve doing that.
“I felt pretty good about where we were yesterday,” Lewis told reporters. “I thought Charlotte had done a full repeal and we were going to come in and consider the same thing. I don’t know where we are right now.”
The Charlotte City Council without notice on Monday said it had voted to repeal its anti-discrimination ordinance that had led to the passage of HB2 earlier this year on condition that the General Assembly would repeal HB2 by the end of the year. Gov. Pat McCrory called the legislature back into a Wednesday session to do that.
But on Tuesday evening it surfaced that Charlotte had not repealed its entire anti-discrimination ordinance. The city attorney said he thought the part of the ordinance that was repealed — the so-called bathroom provision — would satisfy the legislature’s concern that special accommodation not be given to those who want to use public restrooms that do not coincide with their gender at birth.
The council met early Wednesday to resolve those concerns by repealing the rest of the ordinance, which prohibited discrimination in public contracts in the city. The action by Charlotte on Wednesday morning did not set a Dec. 31 deadline, as the earlier deal had.
But it was enough to shake up fragile negotiations among House Republicans who spent four hours in a caucus meeting Tuesday night, as well as Wednesday’s meetings.
“It seems like a small thing, but it’s not,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to act in good faith, and if it was a legitimate mistake that Charlotte made, that’s one thing. If it was something else, that really hurts my ability to stand up and tell members it’s a re-set. We’ve said all along we think re-set is the way to go.”
The House did meet briefly Wednesday morning to adopt rules to operate under during the special session. That’s when a knot of conservative Republican opposition surfaced, with 10 members voting against holding the session.
Rep. Jeff Collins, a Republican from Rocky Mount, said on the floor that the session was unconstitutional because there was no “extraordinary occasion” as the governor’s proclamation declared, and all business could be delayed until next year. Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, and Rep. Larry Pittman, a Concord Republican, spoke in support of Collins. But House Speaker Tim Moore ruled Collins’ protest motion out of order.
As the Senate waited for the House to begin moving a repeal bill, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest issued a statement in opposition to the repeal, putting him in conflict with legislative leadership. Forest was a main proponent of the legislation and presides over the Senate.
“No economic, political or ideological pressure can convince me that what is wrong is right,” Forest said.
As Democratic legislators and the public waited for signals of progress from the House, Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from Charlotte, filed his own HB2 repeal bill. Sen. Mike Woodard, a Democrat from Durham, and Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Democrat from Asheville, signed on as co-sponsors.
The bill was intended to make a political point about the Republican-controlled legislature, as it has no chance of being the repeal bill that might eventually pass.
The trio issued a joint statement:
“North Carolina has buckled under the strain that House Bill 2 has placed on our shoulders over the last nine months. This legislation has hurt people, our communities, our economy and our state’s reputation. Whether or not that damage is irreversible remains to be seen; but we are ready to take the first step by fully repealing House Bill 2 and starting 2017 with the weight of this disastrous legislation off our shoulders. It’s time to move forward and we look forward to bringing this bill to the senate floor.”
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed