Referendum on HB 2? Learn from Prohibition

Hank Stoppelbein drank Charlotte’s first legal mixed drink since Prohibition, a bloody mary, in 1978.
Hank Stoppelbein drank Charlotte’s first legal mixed drink since Prohibition, a bloody mary, in 1978. THE CHARLOTTE NEWS

The fate of HB 2 may be decided in court, but if not, North Carolina has a precedent for resolving conflicts between local needs and state law: a local referendum.

Consider how our state dealt with an earlier divisive dilemma, the sale of alcohol. North Carolina banned it a decade before nationwide Prohibition began in 1920. Though national Prohibition ended in 1933, our state law remained in effect. But Virginia and South Carolina allowed alcohol sales, and two-thirds of North Carolinians lived within 50 miles of one of those states. Huge sums of money – and potential tax revenues – flowed across state lines.

While moral views on drinking differed throughout North Carolina, Prohibition tended to be more popular in small towns and rural areas than in cities. So in 1937 our legislature acknowledged the legitimacy of allowing different laws for different places by empowering local governments to let residents vote on whether to allow liquor sales.

Often the local campaigns resembled religious warfare. But attitudes change. Now only Graham County on the Tennessee line, population about 8,700, is fully dry.

In 1978 the legislature used the same method to let local voters decide whether to allow the sale of mixed drinks.

As with the liquor ban, HB 2’s real costs exceed its purported benefits. After all, legislators didn’t consider the restroom threat to be dire enough to make the law apply to all public restrooms, only those within state government authority. Privacy? Women’s restrooms typically have stalls with doors, and nobody seems concerned about men’s privacy. In 200 cities with ordinances like Charlotte’s, there has been no surge in restroom crime. A Republican state senator in South Carolina rightly called such legislation “a solution in search of a problem.”

Legislators seem unwilling to repeal HB 2. Some talk of a statewide referendum, but that wouldn’t resolve the one-size-fits-all dilemma. Why not learn from N.C. tradition? Empower local governments to put such issues to those most affected by the costs and benefits: local voters.

Ed Williams retired in 2008 after 25 years as editor of The Observer’s editorial pages.