Legislative leaders dangle HB2 repeal deal

North Carolina's top legislative leaders held forth Sunday the possibility of repealing the controversial House Bill 2 if Charlotte City Council were to withdraw its local transgender nondiscrimination ordinance first.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's two top legislative leaders put their weight behind a proposed repeal of House Bill 2 Sunday night, but only if the Charlotte City Council repeals its own transgender nondiscrimination ordinance first.

This repeal-for-a-repeal offer may sit well with neither social conservatives nor LGBT advocates, but it seems to reflect pressure brought to bear from the recent loss of tourism and sports business.

The joint statement issued on behalf of House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger is both the clearest sign yet that the General Assembly could backtrack on the controversial law and an effort to pressure the Charlotte City Council in accepting at least some of the responsibility for a months-long fracas over the measure.

Lawmakers passed House Bill 2 in March. It was purportedly a response to a Charlotte ordinance that required businesses and other public accommodations to allow transgender individuals to use the bathroom and changing room of their choice. However, the state measure went much further, making sweeping changes to state discrimination law – those changes excluded LGBT people from both state and many local protections – and delving into wage and workplace discrimination issues.

The measure has brought down condemnation from big businesses, entertainers and the sports industry, including the NBA, which moved its 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte.

"If the Charlotte City Council had not passed its ordinance in the first place, the North Carolina General Assembly would not have called itself back into session to pass HB 2 in response," the legislative leaders' statement reads. "Consequently, although our respective caucuses have not met or taken an official position, we believe that, if the Charlotte City Council rescinds its ordinance, there would be support in our caucuses to return state law to where it was pre-HB 2.”

That statement is a far more definitive than the suggestion that lawmakers would "have something to discuss" if Charlotte made the first move that Moore, R-Cleveland, issued the day before. It also seeks to make Charlotte shoulder some of the burden for the months of bad press over the bill by forcing the City Council to at least symbolically admit its ordinance brought forth the state measure.

The potential change in direction from top lawmakers comes as more rank-and-file GOP legislators, including Sens. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, and others suggest that lawmakers need to take into account "unintended consequences" and think about repeal. Among those consequences has been the recent, high-profile loses of 2017 championship games that the ACC and NCAA have moved from the state.

It also heeds the call of business leaders, who find themselves both losing money and, at times, under fire for trying to broker compromises between the various factions warring over the bill.

"The hospitality community is an open and welcoming industry, but we find ourselves caught in the middle of a situation that we did not ask for, and our team members are suffering," said Lynn Minges, chief executive of the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association.

It was her group that first broached the idea of a repeal-for-repeal deal. Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican like the majority of lawmakers, has embraced this idea.

"If the Charlotte City Council totally repeals the ordinance and then we can confirm there is support to repeal among the majority of state lawmakers in the House and Senate, the governor will call a special session," McCrory's chief spokesman, Josh Ellis, said Friday night.

However, proposal of a repeal-for-a-repeal has been heavily criticized by LGBT advocates, who say that Charlotte should not be forced to strip newly enacted protections merely to blunt the effects of the state law.

"The reason the NBA, NCAA and countless other groups and companies have refused to do business in North Carolina is because HB2 is an unprecedented and targeted attack on the LGBT community that is inconsistent with American values – not because Charlotte commendably decided to protect LGBT people from discrimination," said Simone Bell, the Southern regional director for Lambda Legal. "Nondiscrimination policies like Charlotte’s are good and necessary measures that protect the LGBT community. Repealing Charlotte’s ordinance would be a step backward for equality, inclusion and fairness. Governor McCrory and the General Assembly need to stop pointing fingers, do the right thing and repeal all of HB 2's harmful provisions."

While any such double-repeal deal would not sit well with LGBT advocates, social conservatives would likely be upset as well.

"Even if Charlotte were to repeal the egregious ordinance that necessitated the need for HB 2, this issue is not going away," the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, wrote on his group's website this weekend.

He added, "North Carolina is at ground zero in this struggle. The fight in which we find ourselves engaged is not merely about our state and its future, but it’s about the entire nation....A war of any type is costly, even if it’s a just war, as is the case for the survival of HB 2. And sometimes, there is collateral damage. However, much greater will be the losses to our state and nation should this statute be repealed or amended in a way that strips it of its force and purpose."

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