Raleigh, N.C. — House members upset with a late addition to a sex education bill that would pre-empt local ordinances on everything from minimum wage to requiring businesses to serve same-sex couples on Tuesday beat back an effort for quick approval of the revised legislation.
The House voted 66-47 to send Senate Bill 279 back to the House Rules Committee, but it could return to the House floor before lawmakers wrap up their 2015 session.
In a second setback for the bill, members of the Rules Committee voted 7-14 against moving it back to floor. That vote likely spells the bill's doom, at least for this year's legislative session. It's unclear whether, or how, it could move forward without a positive vote from the committee that doesn't appear to be forthcoming.
Lawmakers plan to end their session in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
The House overwhelmingly passed the bill two weeks ago, but the Senate didn't go along with the sex ed language the House inserted into the bill at the time. The House version of the bill would have allowed more types of experts to design and approve sex ed materials for North Carolina schools and added sex trafficking to the sex ed curriculum in middle schools.
A group of House members and senators then created a compromise bill that included both sex ed provisions as well as the local pre-emption sections, which haven't been part of any bills filed in either the House or the Senate this session. The General Assembly usually requires that such compromise legislation include only material that was passed by either the House or the Senate.
After about a half-hour of debate on the House floor Tuesday afternoon, Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, asked that the bill be sent back to the House Rules Committee because the new provisions hadn't gone through any legislative review.
Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, wholeheartedly backed Jackson's request, saying any policy questions on pre-empting local ordinances was overshadowed by the way in which they were inserted into an unrelated bill to bypass committee approval.
"Why do we have committees? Why do we even go through the charade ... when it can be bypassed so easily?" Blust asked.
As written, the compromise bill would preclude cities or counties from adopting ordinances related to wage levels, leave or other benefits, which would outlaw the push for "living wage" rules in cities such as Durham, Chapel Hill and Asheville.
It also would prohibit local ordinances or resolutions regarding "housing practices" and landlord and tenant rights, which could endanger efforts in various cities to require developers to include affordable housing in new projects. Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said it wouldn't affect federal housing non-discrimination regulations.
Another provision of the conference report would prevent cities or counties from "mandat(ing) or prohibit(ing) the provision of goods, services, or accommodation to any member of the public by nongovernmental businesses."
Similar restrictions elsewhere have come as "religious freedom" rules giving businesses where the owners or employees object to same-sex marriage the right to refuse service to gay couples. Although such bills were filed in North Carolina this spring, they have sat untouched in committees since April, when legislative leaders said they wouldn't push such restrictions.
Stam, who was the lead House negotiator for the conference report, said that the Senate wanted the pre-emptive sections added and that he agreed to it because the state has an interest in having "a common market and not hav(ing) 635 different ways of doing business."
He cited as an example that some towns have been trying to require developers to commit to certain design standards to gain zoning approval to get around a state law passed in June that precludes local officials from setting aesthetic standards on new houses.
"We are having too many local government trying to get around the intent of the General Assembly," he said.
But Julie White, executive director of the North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, said the provisions need more review and shouldn't come out of nowhere in the closing days of the legislative session.
"We have faith that the General Assembly will remember that these new provisions have not had the opportunity to be vetted, nor has local government had the opportunity to weigh in, good or bad," White said in an email to WRAL News. "Adding new provisions to a conference report in the late hours of an eight-month session doesn't allow for a full vetting of the ideas and possible unintended consequences."
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane also criticized the process, saying city leaders didn't get their usual "seat at the table" to discuss the bill with lawmakers.
"There was really no process for this," McFarlane said. "As mayors and municipal government, we’re just now reading (the bill) and trying to figure out the real impacts are on us."
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, said the legislation would wipe out ordinances in Wake, Durham, Orange, Buncombe and Mecklenburg counties and in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Asheville and Boone that protect LBGT residents.
"Once again, this General Assembly is taking on local governments for making strides to improve the lives of North Carolinians," Sgro said in a statement.
Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, who was the Senate's chief negotiator on the conference report, said the new provisions are "really straightforward" and not "all that sweeping." He said he doesn't believe the bill would invite businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples.
"It deals specifically with what cities can tell businesses they have to do," Barefoot said.
Governments can adopt rules and regulations with regard to their own property and employees, he said, but can't impose greater restrictions on businesses. He said the provisions would create "a uniform system of commerce" statewide.
Sarah Preston, acting executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said local ordinances usually have popular support and are seen by cities and counties as a way to demonstrate that they are inclusive in order to compete for new business and jobs.
"The General Assembly has no business interfering in local decisions to protect residents from discrimination,” Preston said in a statement. “This shameful bill would remove that local control and hurt our state’s reputation by sending a message that North Carolina sanctions intolerance and discrimination.”