Raleigh, N.C. — As has happened repeatedly in recent months, what appeared as a deal to repeal House Bill 2 was only a mirage Tuesday and vanished within minutes of being announced.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore held a 6:30 p.m. news conference to say legislative Republicans had agreed in principle with a proposal offered by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to roll back the controversial state law limiting LGBT rights and transgender access to public bathrooms.
But Cooper denied ever making such a proposal, and the news conference and a subsequent news conference by House Minority Leader Darren Jackson quickly devolved into yet another episode of finger-pointing.
"I think it's clear the idea is that they're not going to be able to get this fixed. They can't get the votes in their caucus to fix it. They're unwilling to join with Democrats to fix it. So, they want to pass a bill and make the governor veto it and lay the blame at his feet when they can't fix it," said Jackson, D-Wake.
House Bill 2 was enacted just over a year ago in response to a Charlotte ordinance that would have required businesses to allow transgender people to use the public bathroom of their choice. The state law not only nullified the Charlotte ordinance, it blocked cities from dictating bathroom access policies to businesses and required transgender people to use public bathrooms in schools and other government buildings that matched their birth gender. It also set a statewide nondiscrimination policy that excluded the LGBT community and prohibited cities and counties from extending such protections to them.
Criticism of the law has rained down on North Carolina for months, with businesses scrapping planned expansions, entertainers canceling concerts, organizations moving conventions out of state and athletic events, including the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, being shifted elsewhere.
The NCAA is set to decide this week on venues for championships in various sports through 2022 and has repeatedly said North Carolina sites won't be considered if House Bill 2 remains on the books because the organization wants to "assure a safe, healthy, discrimination-free atmosphere for all those watching and participating in our events."
Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance executive director Scott Dupree said earlier Tuesday that someone "very close to the NCAA" told him the state had 48 hours to repeal the law or face being blacklisted for the next five years.
"The NCAA has already delayed the bid review process once and has waited as long as it possibly can, and now it must finalize all championship site selections through spring of 2022," Dupree said in a statement.
House Speaker Tim Moore responded Tuesday that lawmakers wouldn't be "bullied" by the NCAA.
"I really don't think the NCAA ought to be trying to shape the agenda of our state," said Moore, R-Cleveland. "We're going to do what we think is right by the state of North Carolina."
He reiterated that any deal would have to have the backing of a majority of House Republicans.
"One thing we've made clear as Republicans is that we're not going to back away from the bathroom safety and the protection of privacy, those things," he said. "There appears to be some movement now on the part of some Democrats acknowledging that, OK, they know we're not going to back off of that.
"One thing we are not going to do is just an outright repeal that leaves nothing in place to keep this from happening again," he added.
Hours later, Moore and Berger were outlining a proposal they said Cooper had made last Thursday that would repeal House Bill 2, prevent cities from making bathroom and locker room access rules, allow local nondiscrimination ordinances consistent with federal guidelines – federal law doesn't provide protections for the LGBT community – and permit lawsuits by people who claim their "rights of conscience" are being infringed.
"(The governor) now denies he made the proposal, so we've got to figure out where we are," Berger said less than two minutes into his news conference. "We were prepared to have him work with the Democrats to get Democratic support, and we were going to work with our caucus to get Republican support for the proposal."
He later acknowledged that the proposal actually came from businesspeople working as intermediaries between Cooper and legislative Republicans on the issue.
But he provided an email string about the proposal that included William McKinney, Cooper's chief counsel, and Ned Curran, chairman of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, to demonstrate Cooper was in the loop about the plan. Ken Eudy, one of Cooper's senior advisers, was copied on the emails.
Berger and Moore said they had been discussing the proposal for five days with other legislative leaders and were "taken aback" by Cooper's disavowal of the proposal.
Cooper spokesman Ford Porter issued a statement about 30 minutes later, calling the news conference a "political stunt."
"It's frustrating that Republican leaders are more interested in political stunts than negotiating a compromise to repeal HB2. While Governor Cooper continues to work for a compromise, there are still issues to be worked out, and Republican leaders' insistence on including an Indiana-style RFRA provision remains a deal-breaker," Porter said. "Any compromise must work to end discrimination, repair our reputation and bring back jobs and sports, and a RFRA is proven to do just the opposite."
RFRA is shorthand for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Porter was referencing a short-lived 2015 Indiana law that would have allowed people to cite their religious beliefs in refusing to accommodate same-sex couples. The legislature quickly approved protections for the LGBT community under intense pressure from businesses and the NCAA.
Jackson said he would have been made aware of any potential deal, so he doesn't believe the one Berger and Moore described ever existed. In fact, he said, a 6:30 p.m. meeting at the Executive Mansion had been set for Cooper, Berger, Moore, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue and Jackson to discuss a way to repeal House Bill 2.
A deal was in place a week ago that would have cleared the House, Jackson said, but it fell apart when Republican leaders couldn't hold their caucus together.
The revised version of House Bill 186, a repeal proposal sponsored by Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, would have allowed opponents of any local nondiscrimination ordinance to gather signatures to put the ordinance up for a vote as a ballot referendum through November 2018.
Forty of the 46 House Democrats had agreed to support the bill, Jackson said, and he was told the Republicans had 30 votes for it. But it never made it to a committee vote.
"The rug got pulled from under us again," he said, clearly exasperated. "You cannot negotiate with these people. ... They tell you you have a deal, and you shake on it. Then it changes."
Berger and Moore said it's unclear whether the proposal they outlined would be rolled out for a vote, saying they had expected to have a bipartisan deal in place.
"If that's not the case, it's a game-changer," Moore said.