Raleigh, N.C. — While groups both for and against a state law that limits LGBT rights are openly critical of a bill designed to repeal it, business organizations are hailing the effort as a good way to get North Carolina back on track after months of negative fallout over the law.
House Bill 186, which was filed Wednesday, would repeal 2016's House Bill 2 and replace it with legislation outlining the authority of local governments to pass and enforce nondiscrimination ordinances, requiring a referendum for those ordinances in cases of substantial opposition, and limiting what bathrooms those governments can oversee. It also adds stiffer penalties for some crimes committed in public bathrooms and changing facilities.
House Bill 2 was passed in a one-day emergency session last March to head off a Charlotte ordinance that would have required businesses to allow transgender people to use the bathrooms that corresponds to their gender identity. The state law not only requires transgender people to use bathrooms in schools and other government buildings that match the gender listed on their birth certificates – businesses are allowed to set their own rules – it also excluded the LGBT community from nondiscrimination protections statewide and barred cities from setting their own minimum wage.
The new bill still doesn't include gay and transgender people in state nondiscrimination policy, and it sets up rules for how cities and counties could extend protections to them, which LGBT advocates called "a repeal of HB2 in name only."
"It leaves intact provisions that allow for discrimination and treating LGBT North Carolinians like second-class citizens," said Sarah Gillooly, policy director for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It would put any legal protections for LGBT North Carolinians at the municipal level up for a vote. All citizens, all North Carolinians, all LGBT people deserve to be treated equally under the law, and civil rights shouldn’t be put up to a vote."
Meanwhile, House Bill 2 backers say the proposal would leave North Carolina without a policy restricting access to public bathrooms and would open the state up to what Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, called "the same unlawful, coercive ordinances that started this debate in Charlotte."
"The referendum really is very little protection, and it causes a lot of problems for people who really would like to stop these kind of policies in the local cities. They're put on the defense," Fitzgerald said.
But after watching the state's reputation get a black eye over House Bill 2, business groups are ready to move on.
The law led to businesses scrapping expansion plans in North Carolina, entertainers canceling concerts, organizations moving their conventions elsewhere and the NBA, the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference shifting athletic events out of state. The NCAA also could blackball the state from hosting any tournaments for the next six years if the law remains on the books, according to sports marketers.
"The North Carolina Chamber and the statewide business community have been clear about our goals on this issue. We are encouraged and supportive of House Bill 186 as a bipartisan effort to move toward a resolution. We encourage continued dialogue and collaboration among elected leaders to pass a solution," Chamber President and Chief Executive Lew Ebert said in a statement.
"NC Realtors commend the legislature for its leadership on this solution and believes this compromise is reasonable and protects all citizens of North Carolina. This will continue the prosperity of our state and its economic future," Andrea Bushnell, chief executive of the North Carolina Association of Realtors, said in a statement.
"We commend the sponsors of HB 186 for coming forth with a bipartisan approach to solving a complex issue. We believe this bill is a good start toward finding common ground, and we are encouraged that there will be continued collaboration from all sides involved," Lynn Minges, president and chief executive of the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in a statement.
Primary sponsor Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said Wednesday that he believes he has enough votes to get House Bill 186 through his chamber. The bill picked up 15 co-sponsors on Thursday, including several House Democrats.
But Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who got burned in December when his effort to repeal House Bill 2 went down in flames, declined Thursday to support McGrady's bill, saying he would wait to see what the House passes, if anything, before commenting.
Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday that he doesn't believe the proposal goes far enough to eliminate discrimination and restore North Carolina's reputation, but he said he is willing to work with lawmakers to craft legislation that meets those needs.