General Assembly returns with HB2 looming as unfinished business

RALEIGH — As N.C. lawmakers met for the first time since a failed special session in December to repeal House Bill 2, the controversial law limiting protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people emerged as a likely topic during the upcoming General Assembly session. Legislators mentioned the possibility of reconsidering a repeal during media interviews following a brief ceremonial and procedural opening day that included the re-elections of the Senate president pro tempore and the House speaker.

Those jobs will again be held by Phil Berger of Rockingham County and Tim Moore of Cleveland County, respectively. Both are Republicans. The GOP maintains veto-proof majorities in both chambers with 74 of 120 House seats and 35 of 50 in the Senate.

N.C. lawmakers greet one another on Wednesday in Raleigh, moments before the 2017 session started.

N.C. lawmakers greet one another on Wednesday in Raleigh, moments before the 2017 session started.

They returned for the usual abbreviated, opening-day session and will begin work in earnest on Jan. 25. For the first time in four years, state government is dividedPat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, lost his re-election bid in a race that stretched into December, ultimately sending the Republican home after one term. Roy Cooper, a Democrat and former four-term attorney general, is the new governor.

“Folks are still discussing that issue,” Moore said Wednesday of HB2, during a session with reporters on the House floor. “As we’ve talked about before, we were very close to seeing some action happen, but for what happened with the Charlotte City Council. In all candor, conversations continue to happen and I think you’ll see some trying to find compromise on that issue. You won’t see the General Assembly betray its principles of where it is, but if there are ways to try to deal with the concerns that were there and allay any issues or concerns with the business community, I think you can probably see something like that.”

Those remarks run counter to the stated goal of Gov. Cooper and advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign and Equality NC. The Charlotte Chamber, Mayor Jennifer Roberts and council also want a full repeal of the law.

McCrory signed HB2 into law hours after it was introduced and approved by state lawmakers during a one-day special session on March 23.

Those actions followed a decision by council in February to back a local ordinance adding LGBT characteristics to the existing nondiscrimination policy while also allowing transgender people to use public restrooms on the basis of identity rather than birth gender. HB2 overrode the local ordinance, prevented similar ordinances anywhere in the state, clarified the lack of protection for LGBT people in state law and prevented local governments from establishing minimum wages.

Since then, North Carolina has become ground zero for debates on gender identity, LGBT nondiscrimination rights and the politics and perceived perils of who uses which restroom.

Republican Bill Brawley of Matthews, a key player in House budget issues who helped stave off a previous attempt to take more sales-tax revenue from Charlotte and other large cities, told me Wednesday he has ideas and tactics in mind for improving urban-rural relations and finding common ground on HB2. But, Brawley added, those aren’t issues he wants to discuss in the media.

Berger, the Senate president, jabbed reporters and some Democrats in his remarks, criticizing them for emphasizing the most divisive issues to either increase viewer and reader interest in the case of the media and to provide fundraising fodder in the case of partisan politicians.

“I think we’ll find out in the next month how close we can get to full repeal,” state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) said. More broadly, discussing state government, he said, “In all honesty, things are really tense right now between Charlotte and the Republican leadership in the General Assembly, but, hopefully, over the next few weeks, we can thaw that.”

Political analysts attributed at least part of the cause of McCrory’s election loss to voter frustration over HB2. In his home county of Mecklenburg, McCrory lost by 136,000 votes to Cooper after winning it four years earlier by 3,100 votes. Disputes with state government over the ownership of the Charlotte airport and McCrory’s support for a privately managed toll-lane project in north Mecklenburg also hurt.

Lawmakers spent almost no time Wednesday focusing on Cooper or McCrory. Berger, in his opening remarks, took one thinly veiled swipe at having a Democratic governor, promising the General Assembly will not revert to what he described as failed tax-and-spend policies. Mostly, he praised Republicans’ five-year stewardship as majority party, listing income tax and unemployment rates slashed by more than half during that time.

Moore and Mecklenburg lawmakers, among others, acknowledged likely continuing rifts between urban and rural legislators. Those divisions almost always break down along party lines — Democrats control most city governments while Republicans often lead smaller towns and less-populated counties — and between liberal and conservative policy stances.

Those tensions could be exacerbated by another round of proposals aimed at redistributing a larger share of urban sales tax money to the poorer rural parts of the state.

“I have been telling people across the state that we have to take urban and rural leaders at the local level, get together in a region, talk about those things you have in common and the things you can work together on and then have representatives from the urban and rural together to introduce legislation,” Rep. Becky Carney (D-Mecklenburg) told me. “It’s local officials reaching across to their counterparts (in addition to state legislators).”

Carney believes Charlotte needs to do more to showcase what the area contributes statewide to the economy, she added.

Freshman Chaz Beasley, a Mecklenburg Democrat, told me, “I sincerely hope we’re able to bring back up HB2, I think that’s important. ... I’m one of the few urban representatives that actually grew up in rural North Carolina — I grew up in Catawba County — and that’s a bridge we have to build.”

Erik Spanberg
Senior Staff Writer
Charlotte Business Journal

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