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NC GOP expands special session beyond restroom policies to wages, workplace rights

NC House special session began Wednesday morning in Raleigh.
NC House special session began Wednesday morning in Raleigh. News & Observer

Proposed legislation for Wednesday’s unusual special General Assembly session wasn’t released publicly Tuesday, but legislative leaders indicate the bill could go well beyond halting Charlotte and other local governments from issuing mandates for transgender people on bathrooms and locker rooms.

A five-page draft acquired by the Observer Wednesday morning showed legislators appear to be looking for a tradeoff with businesses that would forbid cities from raising minimum wages, perhaps in hopes of muffling corporate complaints that denying LGBT rights is bad for business.

In the bill, state leaders are seeking to supersede and pre-empt any ordinance or resolution adopted by a city or county that purports to regulate or impose any requirement pertaining to wage levels, benefits or leave. Local government employees would be exempt. Critics say the move could save businesses millions of dollars by keeping the minimum wage from rising.

The draft also indicates the state seeks to supersede local laws created to provide employment security for the LGBT community by limiting protections to race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or disability.

“The general assembly declares that the regulation of discriminatory practices in employment is properly an issue of general, statewide concern, such that ... General Statues preempt any ordinance or regulation adopted or imposed by a unit of local government or political division of the State.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest posted a formal proclamation calling for the special session Tuesday afternoon. It says the legislature will meet starting at 10 a.m. Wednesday to consider proposals “to provide for single-sex multiple occupancy bathroom and changing facilities and to create statewide consistency in regulation of employment and public accommodations.”

The proclamation was the first mention of employment regulations in reference to plans for the special session. Forest and House Speaker Tim Moore signed the proclamation.

Andy Munn, a spokesman for Moore, said a draft of the legislation wouldn’t be made public until some time Wednesday – hours before it comes to a first vote. “There are still a few tweaks to be made to it,” he said.

Munn wouldn’t comment on the proposal under consideration.

House Minority Leader Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat, called on Moore to release the bill so legislators can consider what they’ll be voting on Wednesday.

“We’re playing hide-and-seek democracy here,” Hall told The News & Observer Tuesday afternoon. “We don’t know what we’re discussing here, we don’t know what we’re voting on. What we’re doing is a perversion of the process.”

The Associated Press reported that it also obtained a copy of one draft of the bill. That draft, according to AP, “would appear to pre-empt completely what Charlotte added to its non-discrimination ordinance and prevent local governments from passing similar acts.”

It also reported that the bill would direct all public schools, government agencies and University of North Carolina and community college campuses to require communal bathrooms or locker rooms be designated for use only by people based on their biological sex. The draft says they could still provide single-occupancy bathrooms and changing facilities in “special circumstances,” presumably for a person whose gender identity is different from their biological sex.

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said Tuesday the final bill was still being worked out, but did go beyond addressing the bathroom issue. He said the bill also would propose the first statewide nondiscrimination law. The draft would prohibit discrimination only based on race, religion, color, national origin and sex.

Lobbyist Theresa Kostrzewa also obtained a draft version and posted sections of it on Twitter. One potential provision would ban cities and counties from regulating employment practices, including setting a higher minimum wage. Another would prevent counties from requiring government contractors to uphold specific employment practices.

Kostrzewa said she doesn’t know whether the draft she posted was still under consideration. Munn would not confirm the authenticity of any of the drafts being circulated.

The N.C. League of Municipalities and the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition said they could not comment on possible curbs to local government control until the bill is introduced.

The special session is in response to the Charlotte City Council’s recent vote to expand protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, including a provision that will allow transgender people to use the restroom and locker room facilities of the gender with which they identify. The ordinance goes into effect April 1.

Opponents said the ordinance effectively allows men to use women’s restrooms and locker rooms, and they said it will endanger public safety and possibly lead to sexual assaults.

LGBT advocacy groups say that those statements constitute “fearmongering” and that similar ordinances are in place in other cities without compromising safety. They say transgender people often face threats and assaults when using public restrooms.

Wednesday’s special session is the second time legislators have returned to Raleigh unexpectedly this year. Last month, the legislature met to approve new congressional districts after a federal court rejected the state’s maps. The General Assembly had not held two special sessions in the same year since 2003.

Hall said Democrats were initially told that this week’s special session would take place Thursday. “We’ve got a lot caught off guard, and people are scrambling trying to come back,” he said.

Governors typically call special sessions, but Gov. Pat McCrory refused to call Wednesday’s session because he was concerned the legislature would go beyond addressing the Charlotte ordinance.

That meant legislative leaders opted for a rarely used law that allows special sessions when three-fifths of legislators in both chambers support the call. That provision in the state constitution hasn’t been used since 1981, according to Forest’s chief of staff, Hal Weatherman.

In the Senate, 31 Republicans backed the session. Only three GOP senators didn’t: Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, Sen. Tamara Barringer of Cary and Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Concord.

All House Republicans except Rep. Charles Jeter of Mecklenburg County and Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville backed the call to session.

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