Politics & Government

Governor’s office: HB2 repeal possible if Charlotte drops LGBT ordinance first

Gov. Pat McCrory could call lawmakers into session as soon as next week to repeal House Bill 2 – but only if the Charlotte City Council first drops the ordinance that prompted it, his office confirmed Friday.

The North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association has been working to broker a compromise to stop the economic damage from HB2, which this week included the loss of major NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference sporting events.

Losing the games is expected to cause an economic loss of tens of millions of dollars.

“Our industry and the hospitality industry at large has been collateral damage in this,” said Lynn Minges, president and CEO of the restaurant group. “It’s obviously been impacting our businesses and employees. We’ve chosen to have a seat at the table rather than have an adversarial role.”

A McCrory spokesman said the governor is willing to call lawmakers back.

“For the last nine months, the governor has consistently said state legislation is only needed if the Charlotte ordinance remains in place,” said spokesman Josh Ellis. “If the Charlotte City Council totally repeals the ordinance and then we can confirm there is support to repeal among the majority of state lawmakers … the governor will call a special session.

“It is the governor’s understanding that legislative leaders ... agree with that assessment.”

But repealing the Charlotte ordinance, which broadened LGBT protections before it was nullified by HB2, would meet resistance. One gay rights spokeswoman Friday called the proposed compromise “the same cheap trick” lawmakers have floated before. It’s unclear whether the council would have the votes to repeal its ordinance.

It’s also unclear whether businesses would return to North Carolina if the compromise involved Charlotte giving up legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals. And a deal might not end the legal challenges.

A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said he is out of the country, and House Speaker Tim Moore did not return calls.

Minges said the City Council would have to act Monday to repeal the ordinance. She said McCrory and “legislative leaders” – she declined to name them – have told her group they’d back the repeal of HB2 if Charlotte acts first.

‘A reset’

Charlotte’s ordinance would have extended anti-discrimination protection to the LGBT community and allowed transgender people to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify.

In response, HB2 took away the ability of local governments to pass LGBT protections and required transgender people to use the restrooms of the gender on their birth certificate in government buildings. It went further, barring cities from raising the minimum wage.

In protest, entertainment acts such as Bruce Springsteen have scrapped North Carolina appearances, and PayPal canceled plans to bring 400 jobs to Charlotte. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued the state, whose reputation has been battered by comedians and commentators across the country.

A deal similar to the current one was proposed in May, but the Democratic-controlled City Council ultimately voted 7-4 against considering a repeal of its ordinance.

Now some lawmakers said they hope a deal can be cut.

“I wouldn’t describe it as a compromise, I would describe it as a reset,” said Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, who favors repeal of HB2. “We need to stop the economic hardship and the negative impact that is happening in our state and this is a good first step.”

Republican Sen. Tommy Tucker of Waxhaw said he believes there’s strong support for a move in the legislature if Charlotte repeals the ordinance. And Republican Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius called the latest proposal “a marvelous idea.”

“It’s what I’ve been saying for the last few days, if we could repeal the ordinance and HB2 we’d be at the status quo.” He said a task force could then bring together stakeholders.

Tarte was among four GOP lawmakers who called for revisions to HB2 this week. On Friday, Sen. John Alexander of Raleigh became the fifth legislator in that group. He called for repeal because “most people don’t view HB2 as a solution to their bathroom privacy concerns.”

Alexander said he hadn’t heard about the possible deal but is supportive. “I think it would be great if it happened – if we went back to where we were a year ago,” he said.

But other lawmakers are skeptical.

House Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex said some legislators have discussed such a deal. But the full House Republican caucus hasn’t considered it.

“Some people are talking about it,” Stam said Friday. “I’m sure there’s not been an agreement to that effect. ... It would be a good step forward if Charlotte repealed its ordinance.”

Stam, who’s been one of HB2’s strongest defenders, cautioned that “if the legislature repealed House Bill 2, Charlotte could re-pass their ordinance the next day.”

‘Same cheap trick’

The LGBT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, which helped write the city ordinance in 2015, launched a phone bank in the spring to convince council members not to repeal the ordinance.

Human Rights Campaign voiced its opposition to the new proposal Friday afternoon.

“This is the same cheap trick the North Carolina General Assembly has attempted all along, asking Charlotte to repeal crucial protections for the LGBTQ community and trust they will hold up their end of the bargain on a full repeal of HB2,” JoDee Winterhof, a senior vice president at HRC, said in a news release. “This arrangement would create problems, not solve them.”

It’s unclear what the City Council will do.

In May, Republican Kenny Smith asked council members to repeal Charlotte’s ordinance as an act of good faith to Raleigh. In return, leaders of the General Assembly reportedly told the city they would modify HB2. Smith’s proposal in May was defeated 7-4.

This proposal is different, in that Restaurant Association said the legislature would repeal HB2 entirely.

The new deal could allow Charlotte to return to how things were prior to February, when council members expanded its nondiscrimination ordinance to include legal protections for the LGBT community.

Minges said the loss of NCAA and ACC sporting events this week prompted more state leaders to back a compromise. “We have had much more productive conversations this week than we have had ever before,” she said. “It’s the first time we’ve had that kind of breakthrough.”

But Minges said her group hasn’t yet secured support from the full Charlotte City Council.

For some council members, a vote for repeal would be a vote to cast aside hard-fought legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender rights. In May, a number of the council’s moderate members said they weren’t willing to do that.

Democrat Vi Lyles, who had met with legislative leaders in an attempt to reach a compromise, voted against a repeal. The next day she said she stood with the LGBT community 100 percent.

In May, Republicans Ed Driggs and Smith, and Democrats Claire Fallon and Greg Phipps voted to repeal the ordinance. Democrat John Autry has been one of the strongest advocates for LGBT protections.

“Legal protections are important, and they have been for a long, long time,” he said. “In Charlotte we have to be concerned at being a competitive global city with what we do to protect the people who live in the city and who visit Charlotte.”

Another factor is Mayor Jennifer Roberts, a staunch proponent of the Charlotte ordinance. She could not be reached for comment Friday. As mayor, Roberts can veto any council action, and a veto takes seven votes to override.