Politics & Government

Move to restrict local government falters

Workers rally outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Thursday, Sept.10, 2015, to demand a $15 hourly wage.
Workers rally outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center Thursday, Sept.10, 2015, to demand a $15 hourly wage. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

In the final hours of the long legislative session, intense debate Tuesday focused on proposed restrictions on local governments that became public only hours earlier.

The changes – which were not part of any other bill this legislative session – were added to an unrelated bill that started out in April and addressed qualifications for professional counselors.

By Tuesday night, the bill had the attention of lawmakers, lobbyists, municipal and county officials, and a slew of advocates who were all studying the rewritten bill. Its language seemed to overhaul a wide range of nondiscrimination ordinances, housing regulations and workplace regulations that some cities and counties have adopted.

The new bill emerged from what is known as a conference committee – a panel appointed to work out differences on bill language between the House and Senate. This committee was chaired by Sen. Chad Barefoot and Rep. Paul Stam of Wake County and had started its work with competing versions of the professional counseling bill.

Neither chamber’s original versions had any provisions regarding substantial changes to local government powers.

By late Tuesday, Democrats had used a procedural maneuver to send it to the Rules Committee. In a rebuke to Stam – one of the House leaders – that powerful committee then voted 14-7 to keep the legislation off the House floor as the legislature hurtled toward an adjournment.

That move, which prompted confusion, was indicative of a swirling atmosphere as lawmakers were pushing to pass dozens of remaining bills Tuesday night ahead of a planned adjournment Wednesday.

Even House Rules Chairman David Lewis said he didn’t know whether the local government bill had been killed in his committee.

“We have actually sent out for legal opinion from our central staff,” Lewis said late Tuesday. “My instinct is that there is not currently a mechanism to get it back on the floor absent action from this committee.”

He added: “We’re in uncharted territory.”

If approved, the bill would ban local governments from making:

▪ Ordinances establishing a higher minimum wage or other regulations involving private employment practices.

▪ Ordinances governing housing and rental practices, likely including policies that mandate affordable housing.

▪ Ordinances that “mandate or prohibit the provision of goods, services, or accommodation to any member of the public by nongovernmental businesses.”

Barefoot said the law is needed to streamline regulations that are hampering businesses across the state.

“We don’t want to have a patchwork of laws in North Carolina with regard to how businesses do what they do,” he said Tuesday. “It makes it clear that North Carolina’s going to have a uniform system of commerce.”

But the new legislation drew widespread outcry from local government officials. The N.C. League of Municipalities said it opposes the bill. And Wake County Commissioner John Burns blasted the proposal in an email to supporters Tuesday.

“This bill includes pages and pages of bans on local ordinances including banning living wage ordinances, local affordable housing ordinances and nondiscrimination ordinances,” wrote Burns, a Democrat and frequent critic of the legislature. “This bill would prevent cities such as Raleigh, Apex, Wake Forest or the County of Wake from passing and implementing many ordinances that result in progress.

“It’s an unwarranted intrusion on local authority. The word outrageous barely covers how truly disgusting this kind of ‘government’ is.”

Democrats and gay, lesbian and transgender advocacy groups, such as Equality NC, said the legislation would scrap nondiscrimination ordinances in eight communities. Some compared it with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which was scrapped earlier this session amid opposition from businesses.

Charlotte leaders narrowly voted down a nondiscrimination ordinance earlier this year, which would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to protected categories. Opponents said the proposal would force businesses to serve gay and transgender people.

“SB 279 is the largest wholesale repeal of local laws and ordinances in North Carolina history,” tweeted state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “And the target is clear: LGBT folks. Charlotte almost passed an ordinance protecting our LGBT friends from discrimination. SB279 would block that from ever happening.”

Asked if the bill would give businesses a license to discriminate, Barefoot said “I don’t believe that’s true.”

The N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, which represents the state’s largest cities, voiced concerns about the process used to introduce the legislation.

“We have faith that the General Assembly will remember that these new provisions have not had the opportunity to be vetted, nor has local government had the opportunity to weigh in, good or bad,” coalition Director Julie White said. “Adding new provisions to a conference report in the late hours of an eight-month session doesn’t allow for a full vetting of the ideas and possible unintended consequences.”

The local government legislation wasn’t the only last-minute proposal avoiding the General Assembly’s usual bill-filing rules.

Barefoot had already successfully pushed through a bill targeting Planned Parenthood, which he had put in an unrelated bill that has now passed both chambers. And a “technical corrections” bill aimed to fix mistakes in earlier legislation was attracting a number of amendments late Tuesday – some of which could have been filed as separate bills earlier in the session.

Barefoot downplayed concerns about the local government legislation’s late introduction. “The legislature moves the way the legislature moves,” he said, adding that the new legislation is “very simple.”

“It’s only two or three pages long,” he said.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter