After a year of pitched political rhetoric, economic losses and national ridicule, North Carolina on Thursday enacted a new law that repeals the controversial House Bill 2 but restricts anti-discrimination ordinances in cities and counties.
Gov. Roy Cooper signed the measure into law a few hours after the General Assembly approved it, coming up against a Thursday deadline that threatened to bar the state from hosting championship sports events through 2022.
The result is a compromise as controversial as HB2 itself, dividing politicians and advocates over whether they can support it or not. The final version of the bill wasn’t completed until late Wednesday, following days of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations over dozens of proposals.
“In a perfect world, with a good General Assembly, we would have repealed House Bill 2 fully today and added full statewide protections for LGBT North Carolinians,” Cooper said at a news conference. “Unfortunately our supermajority Republican legislature will not pass these protections. But this is an important goal that I will keep fighting for.”
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The Democratic governor negotiated the compromise with the Republican leaders of the legislature, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger.
“It was a very measured approach,” Moore told reporters after the legislation was passed. “I think this bill, as written, is also something that is very defensible in court. I think it’s something the public supports. No one is 100 percent happy, but I would say I’m 95 percent happy.”
Whether the repeal and other provisions in the new law will be sufficient to put the state back in contention to host NCAA sports championships remains to be seen. Moore told reporters after the session that business leaders who have been intermediaries in recent negotiations have told him this version of the bill would satisfy NCAA concerns.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said the NCAA’s “Board of Governors will determine whether this is a sufficient change in the law to return.”
“Over the next several days I hope we’ll have something to announce,” Emmert said Thursday at a news conference. “I’m personally very pleased we have a bill to debate and discuss.”
Emmert acknowledged the NCAA’s four specific objections to HB2 were not entirely addressed: “They repealed some of those areas but not all of them. The question the board is debating will be is repealing two or three enough?”
Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, and Dennis Edwards, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, issued a joint statement saying, “We are cautiously optimistic that this will ease the concerns of our client/groups that have expressed concern over holding events in Raleigh and Wake County.”
Cooper said he’s spent time talking to the NCAA, asking for more time to get a new law passed.
“If we didn’t do it before the NCAA made its decision, I feel pretty confident that the pressure would not have been there for the Republican leadership to do anything if this deadline had gone by,” he said.
Cooper said the law was about more than jobs and sports and called it important to repairing the state’s reputation. Having the ACC and the NCAA locate their championships in the state helps restore North Carolina’s reputation and puts money in the pockets of arena employees, program sellers and others, he said.
Margaret Spellings, UNC system president, issued a statement praising the bipartisan vote.
“With today’s action and our continuing commitment to equal access and opportunity for all, we have every expectation that, once again, the University will be able to host national athletic events and professional conferences as we have for years,” she said.
Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine who opposed the bill, said he didn’t appreciate economic pressure from sports leagues and businesses that have protested HB2 for a year.
“Basketball is important to North Carolina, nobody is going to deny that,” Hise said. “But we’ve been threatened as a state and we took the coward’s act and we’re backing down. I can’t stand for that.”
Opposition and support did not fall along party lines in either the House or the Senate, as advocacy groups on the left and right criticized the measure. Some of the most liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans voted against it.
The Senate voted 32-16 in support. In the House, the bill passed 70-48. Lawmakers sped the bill through the legislature by gutting an unrelated bill, House Bill 142, which had already been passed in the House. Once the Senate voted to approve it, the bill was able to go directly to the House for a floor vote.
Joining Berger and Moore, Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh and House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson of Knightdale threw their support behind the measure.
“It had become clear that our timetable was almost over, and if we were going to act, we needed to act soon,” Jackson said after the votes. “This is not the deal I would have written, but it’s the best deal we could get.”
Jackson said the result of the repeal is that transgender men and women can use the restrooms of their choice without fear of being prosecuted.
Berger told the Senate Rules Committee earlier Thursday that the bill represented “a significant compromise from all sides.”
“It is something that I think satisfies some people, dissatisfies some people, but it’s a good thing for North Carolina,” Berger said.
HB2 banned local anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people and required people in government facilities to use bathrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates. Critics said it was discriminatory, while supporters contended it was needed to protect girls and women from sex offenders who might take advantage of access to public restrooms based on gender identity instead of sex at birth.
There are three provisions in the new bill: Repeal of HB2, leaving regulation of multiple occupancy restrooms, showers or changing facilities to the state, and a moratorium on local ordinances regulating public accommodations or private employment practices until Dec. 1, 2020.
Blue said many Democrats oppose imposing a moratorium on local nondiscrimination ordinances, but he said the repeal takes the state back to what it had before HB2 was enacted in March 2016. Speaking on the Senate floor, Blue said the bill “resets the conversation” about new definitions of discrimination.
“I think this will address issues of who we are, how inclusive we are and whether everyone is valued,” Blue said.
Sen. Dan Bishop, a Mecklenburg Republican and key author of HB2, was the only senator to speak on the floor against the new bill. “This bill is at best a punt; at worst it is a betrayal of principle,” Bishop said.
Ned Curran, a former chairman of the Charlotte Chamber and former chairman of the state Board of Transportation under Gov. Pat McCrory, asked the Senate Rules Committee to pass the bill.
“This is a bill that will benefit the 10 million people of North Carolina and the 100 counties and will make North Carolina a better place than it is today,” said Curran, who has been involved in recent negotiations to reach a compromise.
In the House, a contingent of Democrats opposed it because they said the bill doesn’t go far enough in eliminating discrimination, casting it in terms of the history of civil rights in the United States. The two openly LGBT lawmakers, Rep. Cecil Brockman of High Point and Rep. Deb Butler of Wilmington, were among the opponents.
“The times in life are rare when you have an opportunity to truly stand for justice,” Butler said. “This is one of those days. ... This is so much bigger than basketball. The people of North Carolina want us to repeal HB2. We would rather suffer under HB2 than to have this body one more time deny us the full and unfettered protections of the law.”
Rep. Sarah Stevens, a Republican from Mount Airy who is the speaker pro tem, described to reporters how meticulous negotiations in recent weeks with small groups of legislators eventually led to agreement.
“We brought them all in,” she said. “From some on the more extreme right, for some on the more extreme left there was not a lot we could do to bring them together. We had the ACLU and the Family Values Coalition going together to oppose this bill. That was a group of strange bedfellows.”
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality N.C., said he was surprised Cooper backed the compromise, calling it “a failure of leadership.”
“Roy Cooper and some legislative Democrats helped Tim Moore and Phil Berger fulfill their political agenda to place blame on somebody other than themselves for HB2, and not actually get anything done to substantively repeal HB2,” Sgro said.
Cooper, shoring up his defense of attacks from the left, said, “I’m going to keep fighting every single day for LGBT protections. I’m going to be fighting for a North Carolina that is welcoming for everybody. And I believe this is a step in trying to get our laws to catch up to our people.”