Politics & Government

NC Senate leader Phil Berger defends anti-LGBT law under fire

Berger calls 4th Circuit transgender ruling 'troubling' and says it's not the last word on the issue

Sen. Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the NC Senate, talks with reporters about North Carolina's HB2 and the 4th Circuit Court's ruling on a transgender case.
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Sen. Phil Berger, President Pro Tempore of the NC Senate, talks with reporters about North Carolina's HB2 and the 4th Circuit Court's ruling on a transgender case.

Senate leader Phil Berger said Wednesday that he does not support repealing a new law limiting legal protections for LGBT people, defending the law one day after a federal appeals court threw its long-term viability into question.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled for a transgender Virginia teenager who wanted to use the school bathroom consistent with his gender identity as male, allowing his case to go forward. A section of the North Carolina law requires people to use bathrooms in public buildings that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates.

“While the decision is troubling, it’s not the last word on this issue,” Berger said. “It’s not even the last word in that case.”

The ACLU and others have filed a lawsuit challenging the North Carolina law.

Beyond the legal questions, calls for repeal have been widespread, coming from international corporations, North Carolina cities and counties, and North Carolina businesses. Democratic legislators plan to introduce bills to repeal the law known as HB2.

Christian conservative groups backing the law have held rallies and public prayer vigils in support.

Berger read a statement defending what he called the “bathroom safety bill.”

“My job is not to give in to the demands of multimillionaire celebrities pushing a pet social agenda, liberal newspapers like The New York Times, big corporations who have every freedom to set whatever policies they wish under this law,” Berger said. “My job is to listen to the people who elected us to represent them. And the vast majority of North Carolinians we’ve heard from understand and support this reasonable, common-sense law.”

The economic damages the law triggered have multiplied since the legislature held a special session last month to pass it. PayPal canceled plans to expand in Charlotte, at a cost of 400 jobs. Deutsche Bank froze its Cary expansion plans, which would have brought 250 jobs. Cities and states around the country have prohibited their employees from traveling to North Carolina, and conventions have canceled plans to meet here. The United Kingdom issued a travel advisory for LGBT citizens traveling to North Carolina or Mississippi.

Berger referred to his prepared statement when asked about the economic fallout.

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said in an interview that he was “absolutely amazed” at Berger’s attitude.

Everyone in this country deserves basic civil rights, Blue said, and it would be worth it for Republicans to revisit the law to make sure that they aren’t running off the businesses that they claim their economic policies are attracting.

“I don’t know what it takes to make people realize that this is a serious issue,” and not something that will fade over the next few months, Blue said. “It plays out reputationally over the next five to 10 years as people decide whether North Carolina is a desirable place to be.”

The law also wiped out municipal ordinances that offered protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and prohibited the filing of employment discrimination lawsuits in state court.

Gov. Pat McCrory said he wants the legislature to repeal the part of the law dealing with court filings. Berger would not commit to repealing that portion.

“We will listen to the governor’s proposal,” Berger said, but he added that he was not convinced changes are needed.

The legislature will make budget adjustments in the short session, which begins April 25.

Berger said Senate Republicans have a target of increasing the state budget by about 2 percent.

Legislators will look to cut income taxes by raising the standard deduction – the amount of personal income that isn’t taxed unless a taxpayer itemizes deductions. A legislative committee has considered increasing the amount from $15,000 to $17,500 for a married couple filing jointly. Berger said he hopes that happens in the short session.

Teacher raises are likely to be a focus. McCrory has already announced he wants to bring average teacher pay to more than $50,000, and he will seek teacher pay raises that average 5 percent and bonuses for teachers starting at $1,100.

Berger called the $50,000 average “a goal we will start working on this short session,” but he did not commit to reaching it this year.

“I don’t know if I can give you a specific timeline,” he said. “A lot of it is going to depend on the revenue available” and other budget pressures.

He was less specific about state employee raises, saying that there will be an effort to have targeted pay raises.

“It is no secret that the Senate generally has not been enamored with the idea of across the board raises,” Berger said. “I think that will be something that will result in a good bit of discussion as we move forward with what I hope will be a fairly short short session.”

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner

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