House and Senate leaders announced late Tuesday that Republicans are willing to agree “in principle” to House Bill 2 changes they say were proposed last week by Gov. Roy Cooper – but the Democratic governor says there are “still issues to be worked out.”
House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger held a news conference Tuesday evening to outline the potential deal, which is similar to a draft bill circulated last week.
“The governor made a proposal late last week that we are prepared to agree to in principle,” Berger told reporters. “We called the governor on the way down here to let him know we agreed, but he now denies that he ever made the proposal, so we’ve got to figure out where we are.”
HB2 bans cities, towns and counties from passing nondiscrimination ordinances. Berger indicated that the proposed changes to HB2 would allow local governments to enact ordinances but only with the protected classifications established in federal law. Those classifications don’t explicitly include sexual orientation or gender identity.
The proposal would repeal HB2 but would ban local governments, universities and school boards from setting bathroom access policies similar to the Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance that prompted HB2.
It also includes a provision to “protect the rights of conscience,” which would allow lawsuits against the state for anyone who believes their constitutional rights are threatened by government action. That provision has drawn comparisons to Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but Moore rejects that description.
Cooper’s spokesman issued a statement Tuesday evening indicating that no final deal was made with legislative leaders.
“It’s frustrating that Republican leaders are more interested in political stunts than negotiating a compromise to repeal HB2,” spokesman Ford Porter said. “While Gov. Cooper continues to work for a compromise, there are still issues to be worked out, and Republican leaders’ insistence on including an Indiana-style RFRA provision remains a deal-breaker. Any compromise must work to end discrimination, repair our reputation, and bring back jobs and sports, and a RFRA is proven to do just the opposite.”
Berger’s office distributed a chain of emails between Senate staffers and Cooper’s attorney, William McKinney, including draft language for what McKinney calls “the bill which we have been discussing.”
The language is similar to the proposal described by Republicans, but the emails don’t indicate whether Cooper’s staff gave final approval to the terms.
Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat, blasted the Republican description of negotiations in a Facebook video. “The Republicans failed, and then they came out to lie to cover their butts about it because they need political cover,” he said.
Tuesday evening’s announcement came with little notice on the same day that a leading Raleigh sports event recruiter said the legislature had less than 48 hours to address NCAA concerns about the law or lose the ability to host championships through 2022.
Berger said the new HB2 proposal is not in “bill form” yet, which would make any vote in the next day or two unlikely.
Berger said Cooper proposed the terms on Thursday and Republican legislators have been discussing the proposal in private caucus meetings since. On Monday afternoon, a majority of GOP lawmakers agreed to move forward.
“We have a majority of our caucus who agree in principle with these ideas, and we’re hoping to be able to move forward with it,” Moore said.
After the news conference, Berger and Moore were spotted by reporters walking to the governor’s mansion – an indication that additional negotiations could be taking place.
Until last week, Republicans were negotiating with legislative Democrats and Cooper to find a repeal compromise that would win support from a bipartisan majority of House lawmakers.
Last Thursday, Moore said the bipartisan compromise measure was “dead,” but he said House and Senate Republicans were working on new legislation to change HB2. House Democrats say they have not been involved in the discussions since.
“The rug got pulled out from under us,” House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson said Tuesday, adding that he’s critical of the plan Berger and Moore’s announced. “This is all about laying blame and not what fixes the problem.”
Some groups opposing HB2 indicated they can’t support the proposal Berger and Moore described.
“Legislative leaders need to stop floating bad proposals that would still enshrine discrimination into state law rather than fully repeal HB2,” ACLU North Carolina policy director Sarah Gillooly said in a news release. “The answer all along has been a clean repeal of HB2.”
The LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign noted the looming deadline to keep NCAA events. “Someone please tell @SenatorBerger @NCHouseSpeaker that when you’re losing, you don’t run out the clock,” HRC president Chad Griffin tweeted.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican and vocal supporter of HB2, sent a letter to legislators this week urging them to oppose any changes to the law – including the measure Republicans are considering, which he said has “fatal flaws.”
Forest said he’s “deeply troubled” that lawmakers “seem to be reacting to the demands and timetables of an unaccountable, out-of-state organization (NCAA), not elected by the people, to enforce a radical policy change.”
Forest says allowing local nondiscrimination ordinances – even with restrictions – would be “burdensome for business.” And he said the “conscience protection” provision would “provide little to no relief for the religious person in North Carolina.”