Democratic and Republican lawmakers, business and LGBT advocacy groups held dueling press conferences Tuesday as the struggle continues over a compromise to repeal the controversial House Bill 2.
The press events came as pressure mounts to prevent the loss of a number of highly lucrative sporting events – including six years of NCAA championships – due to the law. A number of repeal bills have been filed, but none seem to have broad bi-partisan support. Last week Republican and Democratic state representatives filed House Bill 186, touted by its sponsors as a compromise bill.
The bill would repeal HB2 but replace with a law that would constrain local governments that want to pass nondiscrimination ordinances like the one passed last year that extended protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Charlotte. The law would limit which restrooms local governments could regulate, add stiffer penalties for crimes committed in restrooms and changing areas and require a public referendum if opponents of such local laws gather enough signatures.
Any such ordinances would also not apply to religious or non-profit organizations, including schools and hospitals.
Opponents of the bill – including top Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Roy Cooper – say the referendum provision would ignite fierce HB2-like campaigns across the state rather than solve the problem created by the state law.
The day began with a morning event at which LGBT advocacy group Equality North Carolina brought together Democratic lawmakers, Triangle area business owners and parents of transgender children to express their opposition to the bill.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) said HB186 would lead to North Carolinians “waging culture wars in our communities indefinitely.”
“The referendum idea is just a bad idea,” Van Duyn said. “We do not put the right of the minority to a vote of the majority.”
Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) headlined a press conference later in the day that brought together Democratic and Republican lawmakers, business leaders and trade group associations and even two Democratic members of the Charlotte City Council.
McGrady said the Republican votes don’t exist to pass a repeal without the referendum provision. About 35 Republican and 35 Democratic votes are needed for HB186 to pass, McGrady said – and he called on Gov. Cooper to help him rally the votes.
The referendum provision would assure that “once we get out of the bathroom business, we stay out of the bathroom business” Grady said – while allowing communities that can get a referendum passed to expand further protections to LGBT people.
McGrady said he would not “draw any lines in the sand” but did not see how a compromise bill could pass without a repeal of HB2 to appease Democrats and a referendum provision to appease Republicans. He called for further dialogue and welcomed anyone to tell him how it may be done.
“You can’t negotiate with yourself,” McGrady said. “And right now I haven’t heard from the governor.”
Sadie Weiner, Cooper’s communications director, disputed that in a statement Tuesday.
“As Governor Cooper shared in a video message on Sunday, he is willing to support HB186 if the provision for referendum votes are removed,” Weiner said. “Imposing this sort of trigger mechanism on local anti-discrimination ordinances would lead to dozens of HB2 fights all around the state, keeping North Carolina in the news for all the wrong reasons.”
“Governor Cooper has spoken to Speaker Moore,” Weiner said. “He has indicated that a deal is possible if Republicans will simply negotiate on the referendum piece. It would mean that the Governor goes along with some provisions he doesn’t like very much, but he’s willing to do so for the sake of progress. Speaker Moore has said he will not negotiate on this provision. Republicans need to come back to the table to re-open negotiations and get this deal done or the stain of HB2 will remain on their hands. ”
Representatives from the North Carolina and Charlotte Chambers of Commerce, the North Carolina Realtor Association were among a number of business representatives on hand to encourage a compromise solution. Most were careful to point out they weren’t endorsing HB186 or its specifics but said they were encouraged by the dialogue it has brought about and called for a swift solution.
Charlotte City Councilman James Mitchell was one of a few Democrats on hand for the press event, though none of them spoke as extensively as GOP lawmakers.
Mitchell praised lawmakers for the dialogue that is occurring and encouraged a compromise.
After the event, Mitchell said that while some repeal of HB2 is essential to save jobs and tourism dollars now being lost, he does not support the referendum provision of HB186.
“I do think the referendum is going to cause some headaches for municipalities,” Mitchell said, calling it “a deal-breaker” for him.
Rep. Darren Jackson (R-Wake), the House Minority Leader, held his own press conference Tuesday afternoon.
He said neither he nor Cooper have walked away from the negotiating table – but there are some things they don’t feel are negotiable.
“Some of the proposals were not acceptable to the governor and they weren’t acceptable to me – they included a referendum on peoples’ rights,” Jackson said. “I guess Rep. McGrady viewed that as walking away because there were a few points that couldn’t be negotiated.”
Jackson refuted McGrady’s claim, made Monday night, that Democratic lawmakers had been threatened if they signed on to the bill.
After a Democratic caucus meeting Monday night, he said, it was clear the Democratic votes simply don’t exist to pass a repeal with the referendum provision. He illustrated the point using a white board on which he had written vote totals for various repeal scenarios.
The few Democratic lawmakers who had signed on as sponsors to HB186 had done so because they wanted to keep the conversation going and were under the impression that a referendum was negotiable and could come out later, Jackson said.
Rep. Marvin Lucas (D-Cumberland), one of the bill’s few remaining Democratic sponsors, confirmed that.
“I am part of the bill basically as a catalyst for discussion, and I think we’re having some good discussion,” Lucas said. “I think we are going to keep that going. But I’ve heard no threats against me or other Democrats who are keeping this conversation going.”
Lucas said the referendum provision would personally be a deal breaker for him – and he believed it would for most of his Democratic colleagues as well. Lucas said he made that known when signing on and his Republican colleagues understood it.
“I don’t believe in putting peoples’ civil rights to a vote,” said Lucas. “I’ve always been a strong proponent of civil rights, going back to my sit-in days.”
Though he said he had not spoken to N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) about HB2 since December, Jackson said he has from Republican colleagues that N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) is unwilling to negotiate on the referendum provision.
The original deal on HB2 repeal floated in December was a straight, unequivocal repeal of HB2 for the straight, unequivocal repeal of the ordinance passed by the Charlotte City Council, Jackson said. That had enough support to pass, but it turned out there weren’t enough votes in the Republican caucus to actually get it done.
“Now the ball has been moved, the goal post has been moved,” Jackson said. “Now they want more. They want bathrooms preempted, so no local municipality can expand the use of multi-stall, locker rooms or showers. And the governor has agreed to that preemption. And now they want a referendum on civil rights.”
“At some point you just have to stop negotiating with people who keep moving the ball on you,” Jackson said. “And who apparently don’t even have the power to make the deal.”
With sports organizations meeting this month and next to decide the location of championship games, the window for a compromise may be closing. Jackson said the state may be able to save some major basketball tournaments if a deal can be reached by mid-March . But that’s going to require a deal between Republican legislative leadership and the governor, Jackson said – and one that is palatable to both sides.