Despite economic losses, NC Chamber stays mum on HB2
Posted April 29, 2016
Updated May 4, 2016
Raleigh, N.C. — As the number of canceled concerts, conventions and business expansions related to a controversial state law continues to mount, North Carolina's largest business organization remains strangely silent about the law.
House Bill 2, which was approved during a one-day emergency legislative session last month, has generated nationwide debate because it excludes gay and transgender people from discrimination protections and prohibits cities and counties from extending such protections. It also requires people to use public bathrooms that correspond to their birth gender.
Since its passage, PayPal and Deutsche Bank have called off planned expansions in North Carolina, costing the state close to 700 jobs. Other businesses have told economic developers that North Carolina is no longer being considered for their new offices or plants, and several trade associations have moved conventions outside the state, either because of opposition to House Bill 2 or because so many locales have blocked non-essential travel to the state that logistics for the conventions became unwieldy. Performers from Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam to Cirque du Soleil have also canceled appearances in the state to protest the law.
Local chambers of commerce across the state, including the organizations in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, have come out against House Bill 2, saying it doesn't represent their values.
The North Carolina Chamber, meanwhile, has said only that it has been "conducting an analysis" of House Bill 2 and has declined to take a position on it.
WRAL News also tried to contact the five elected officers to the group's board to ask about their personal positions on the law. BB&T President Ricky Brown was the only one who responded, and he likewise didn't take a position on it.
"I support the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce’s continuing efforts to fully understand and navigate the HB2 issue to ensure our state is a great place to do business," Brown said in an email through BB&T's corporate communications office.
Left-leaning government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina has launched a petition drive to encourage the N.C. Chamber to speak out on the law.
"I think they cut a deal," Bob Hall, the group's executive director, said of the N.C. Chamber.
State chambers of commerce in Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi and South Carolina have all come out against similar anti-LGBT legislation, but unlike proposals in other states, House Bill 2 includes provisions that make it much harder for workers to sue for job discrimination and that bans local governments from requiring contractors to pay a certain wage. Both are key priorities for the N.C. Chamber, Hall said.
"These are the kind of things they like. They want to get rid of liability," Hall said, noting that the N.C. Chamber is a powerful lobby and political donor with close ties to Republican legislative leaders.
"They want things, and they have snuck things in or they’ve done things," he added. "People don’t see their fingerprints often, but they’re inside the deals."
Chamber officials declined to comment when asked whether they played any part in writing the new law.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said he didn't speak personally with anyone from the N.C. Chamber when House Bill 2 was being drafted. But he said he didn't know if any other sponsors of the bill did.
"You’ll have to talk to the other folks that were involved in writing the bill. I don’t think that was the case, but I was not in the room all the time," Berger said.
Sen. Buck Newton, R-Wilson, said he didn't talk to anyone from the N.C. Chamber before House Bill 2 was passed, either. He also disputed the argument that the law makes it more difficult for people to sue over job discrimination.
"I don’t recall there being any discussion about trying to cut off any existing claims that somebody could bring," Newton said. "There’s also arguments that it doesn’t cut off claims, so I don’t think that’s clear yet."
Supporters of the law maintain it is needed to maintain privacy and safety in women's bathrooms and locker rooms, but Hall says that stance is just a distraction.
"It's a smokescreen for a lot of big damage, and the Chamber's the one that's going to benefit," he said. "Come out of the shadows. Come out of the closet, if you will, and take responsibility for it."