Politics & Government

Despite last-minute pleas, NC lawmakers could end HB2 in special session

Opposition to the Republican-led NC Legislature's HB2 bill was evident as number signs were carried among the marchers at the 32nd annual NC Pride 2016 parade in Durham, NC which kicked off down West Main Street at 1pm Saturday, September 24, 2016 with thousands marching around the streets surrounding the Duke East Campus.
Opposition to the Republican-led NC Legislature's HB2 bill was evident as number signs were carried among the marchers at the 32nd annual NC Pride 2016 parade in Durham, NC which kicked off down West Main Street at 1pm Saturday, September 24, 2016 with thousands marching around the streets surrounding the Duke East Campus. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Despite last-minute appeals, North Carolina lawmakers could repeal the state’s so-called “bathroom bill” on Wednesday, putting an end to a nearly year-long legal, cultural and economic battle

Lawmakers are scheduled to convene another special session at 10 a.m. to consider repeal of House Bill 2, the law that limits LGBT protections and requires transgender people to use the restroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory called the special session Monday after Charlotte City Council, in a surprise move, rescinded the ordinance that prompted it.

Democrats credit Gov.-elect Roy Cooper with helping broker the deal. Republicans say the Charlotte council finally did what it had refused to do at least twice before under the Republican governor.

“The city council has taken care of their side of the equation and we need to take care of ours,” said GOP Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius.

But a day before the vote, some Republicans questioned why Charlotte City Council didn’t repeal the entire nondiscrimination ordinance, which it claimed to have done in a news release sent early Monday.

The controversy raised questions as to whether the Republican legislature would repeal HB2.

Council members did remove the part of its ordinance that dealt with public accommodations, prohibiting business such as stores and restaurants from discriminating against people based on categories such as race and religion – and also sexual orientation and gender identity. That part of the ordinance included the provision that related to transgender people being allowed to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

However, council members left some parts of the ordinance intact.

The city’s ordinance still prohibits the city from hiring contractors who have been found to discriminate against a subcontractor because of an employee’s race or religion – as well as because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

That means the city ordinance still offers some legal protections, though small ones, to people who are gay or transgender.

Republican City Council member Kenny Smith, who voted against the city's ordinance in February, said he has heard that some Republicans in Raleigh are concerned that part of the city's ordinance is still intact. He said council members were removing the part of the ordinance that HB2 nullified.

"I don't think council negotiated in bad faith," Smith said.

Unlike last week’s two special sessions, which saw more than two dozen bills filed, lawmakers are expected to limit the scope of this week’s session.

“There’s a significant group of Republican legislators that would like to have one bill done in one day and go home,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican.

A repeal bill is likely to be supported by Democratic legislators. That means only a fraction of Republicans could be needed to pass it. Tuesday, several pro-HB2 groups tried to make sure lawmakers won’t repeal it.

A group of Charlotte pastors held a news conference outside Charlotte’s Government Center Tuesday. Mark Harris, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charlotte, urged lawmakers not to repeal HB2.

“We urge them to stand strong,” he said.

Harris criticized Mayor Jennifer Roberts and the City Council for passing the ordinance in the first place. He said he didn’t think there was a problem with LGBT discrimination in Charlotte, and said the council’s decision to quickly repeal the ordinance confirmed that.

Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, urged supporters to contact lawmakers.

“Lawmakers need to hear from you that a vote to repeal NC’s privacy law betrays the children and families whom North Carolinians worked hard to protect this past November,” Fitzgerald said.

“Lawmakers shouldn’t now betray those who re-elected them nor compromise commonsense principles, like privacy, dignity, and freedom for all citizens.”

A distraction

It’s unclear how much opposition there might be to the measure that appears to have the support of GOP leaders. House Republicans were scheduled to meet Tuesday evening to discuss the bill.

“I think it’s important that we bring it to the House floor for a vote, I’ll push for that,” said Republican Rep. Gary Pendleton of Raleigh. “A lot of people don’t want to do that. Basically, it’s a few of us urban people against all those rural people.”

The law is blamed for costing the state hundreds of jobs and millions in tourism dollars. The NBA moved its All-Star Game out of Charlotte and the NCAA and ACC moved tournament games from the state. Some lawmakers are ready to put the issue behind them.

Republican Rep. Craig Horn of Union County said he’ll “probably” vote for repeal. The chair of the House Education Committee, he said his main focus is schools.

“I can’t continue to be distracted by other issues,” he said.

Republican Rep. Leo Daughtry of Johnston County acknowledged that some lawmakers would feel relief. “And some feel we got caught in a political trap,” he said. “Earlier efforts were made in September to try to do the same thing. Now that the election is over it seems to be much easier.”

‘We’ll finish it’

Republicans offered a similar deal at least twice before, only to have the Charlotte council reject it. Democrats say GOP lawmakers never before offered the assurances they appear to have now. Republicans say Cooper and other Democrats made sure no deal would succeed, saying that allowed them to use HB2 to hammer McCrory and other Republicans.

Democrats point to a September interview in which House Speaker Tim Moore, asked about a deal with Charlotte, said the legislature could “get rid of most of those provisions and just make sure we kept in the bathroom piece and the other things.”

Republicans cite news reports that Cooper lobbied Democratic lawmakers last summer against a proposed revision of HB2. A Cooper spokesman said at the time that Cooper favored full repeal, and revisions would not go far enough.

GOP Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County said he thinks the votes are there to repeal HB2. Lawmakers, he said, are ready “to get the negative stigmas off the state of North Carolina and Charlotte.”

“I’m grateful to Charlotte for making the opportunity available,” he said. “They started it. We’ll finish it.”

Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill