Raleigh, N.C. — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger vowed Wednesday that a new law that sets discrimination policy statewide will remain in place despite growing cries from the business community and others to repeal it.
The General Assembly passed House Bill 2 last month in a one-day special session. The measure requires people to use the public bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificate, excludes gay and transgender people from discrimination protections and bar cities and counties from extending such protections to them. It also prohibits cities from setting their own minimum wage and eliminates the right of people to sue for job discrimination in state court.
Since its passage, companies have pulled back on plans for expansions in North Carolina, performers have canceled concerts, the NBA is considering moving the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte and the United Kingdom has issued a travel advisory to LGBT citizens who might visit the state.
"My job is not to give into the demands of multimillionaire celebrities pushing a pet social agenda, liberal newspapers like The New York Times or big corporations who have every freedom to set whatever policies this wish under this law," said Berger, R-Rockingham. "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.
"We are not going to do anything that makes it easier for grown men to get into showers, locker facilities and bathroom facilities that are occupied by women and girls," he continued.
He criticized the backlash against the law, saying it has been slanted and not based in fact. He said businesses can still set their own policies for bathroom access without any local mandates, and schools can accommodate transgender students as needed.
The discrimination policies in the law are stronger than those of the federal government, he said, adding that it "essentially preserves what was the status quo" throughout much of the state. Businesses and nonprofits can set even stronger policies if they want, he said.
FBI statistics show no hate crimes based on gender identity were reported in North Carolina in 2014, the most recent year available, Berger said.
"It seems like the Charlotte ordinance was a solution in search of a problem," he said, referring to an ordinance the Charlotte City Council passed in February that was negated by the bathroom provision of House Bill 2.
Meanwhile, he said, there are many cases where men have been found in women's bathrooms or locker rooms.
Berger said he isn't fazed by the "troubling" decision Tuesday by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled a Virginia school district's rule against a transgender boy using the boys' bathroom at his high school is discriminatory. He noted the ruling merely sent the case back to a lower court for trial and "is not even the last word in that case."
Budget, teacher raises on lawmakers' agenda
He made his comments during a news conference to discuss priorities during the 2016 legislative session, which starts next week.
The primary focus will be adjusting the state budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, he said. State revenue is above projections, and he said lawmakers would look to approve a "responsible budget" that increases spending up to 2 percent.
Lawmakers also will likely continue tax reform and regulatory reform efforts of recent years, he said. Rather than adjusting income tax rates or expanding sales taxes to some services, however, he expects the primary change will be an increase in the standard deduction on income tax returns, such as from $15,000 to $17,500 for couples filing jointly.
More teacher pay raises are also on the agenda, Berger said, but no details have been discussed.
"I think Gov. McCrory has actually set the right marker for us to have as a goal getting average teacher pay to $50,000," he said. "It's a goal we will start working on during this short session."
He was more hesitant on raises for state workers, saying lawmakers have to see how much money is available and noting that the Senate has been loathe to approve across-the-board pay increases.
Berger said he spoke with House Speaker Tim Moore on Tuesday to ensure their priorities jibe, which could speed the session. Last year, lawmakers didn't approve a budget until late August and didn't adjourn until September.
"My hope is that we will finish in time for everyone to enjoy fireworks that don't involve this building," he said.