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Lobbyists: Lawmakers turn up pressure to quiet HB2 opponents

Posted May 11, 2016 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated May 11, 2016 7:25 p.m. EDT

— While Republican state leaders have complained about being "bullied" by the federal government over House Bill 2, lobbyists in Raleigh tell WRAL News they and the businesses they represent are being bullied by state lawmakers seeking to silence business opposition to the new law.

Lobbyists say they've been told – either directly by legislative leaders or by lawmakers' staff – that, if they or the businesses they represent speak out publicly against House Bill 2, they can expect retribution from House and Senate leaders.

Legislation they want won't move, and other bills could actually target them.

WRAL News spoke with 11 lobbyists who have experienced or are aware of such actions, but none would speak on the record for fear they would lose business or be targeted for retribution. One has already lost business.

One long-time lobbyist called the pressure a "gross abuse of power." Another veteran lobbyist labeled it "vicious," adding, "I've never seen anything like it."

Rep. Chris Sgro, D-Guilford, an outspoken critic of House Bill 2, said he's heard about the problem.

"It's really disturbing. It's a bullying tactic that potentially leadership is using," Sgro said. "If it’s true that businesses are being threatened that they need to ignore their bottom line in favor of terrible public policy, that’s just irresponsible. That needs to stop immediately."

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said it's nothing new for lawmakers to associate lobbyists with their position on certain issues for better or worse, but when asked about efforts to silence businesses and corporations over House Bill 2, he responded, "No, don't know anything about it."

"I haven't said that to a lobbyist, and I haven't been around any member that's said that to a lobbyist," said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "I don't think the folks I know here would do that."

House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, also denied knowing anything about it. "Retribution politics is not a practice we engage in."

House Majority Leader Mike Hager, a vocal supporter of House Bill 2, recently tweeted at a lobbyist, "Wow I would think from all your negative posts about HB2 that u weren't a lobbyist and didn't have to work with the majority."

"That's not a threat," Hager, R-Rutherford, explained to WRAL News. "We want people that'll work with us. We don't want people that'll go out there and bash us on Twitter and bash us on Facebook."

Hager wants to remove state tax breaks that currently benefit American Airlines, NASCAR, Google, Apple and Facebook, all of which have taken public positions against House Bill 2. But he said that's just a coincidence.

He says he's targeting those tax breaks because he disagrees with incentives directed toward individual companies, not as any sort of retribution.

"There are businesses that take a certain stance, and there's a lot of lobbyists that represent businesses, you know, (that) have taken a certain negative stance on HB2," Hager said. "None of those, I don't think, have had any negative retribution at all."

Wherever the pressure is coming from, Sgro says, it needs to stop, noting that American Airlines is a major employer that chose to stay in Charlotte after its recent merger with USAir.

"The business community is standing up for what they think is the right thing and certainly what’s good for their bottom line," Sgro said. "We already have this terrible business climate because of this bill. If some members of leadership are going to double down on that and threaten the businesses that are willing to stay and try to make it better, that's dangerous."