North Carolina Lawmakers Adjourn Without Repealing Transgender Bathroom Law

The North Carolina Senate voted down a repeal of House Bill 2 and adjourned Wednesday after a day of increasingly partisan rancor that pitted conservative Republicans against the Charlotte they so distrust.
by | December 22, 2016 AT 1:00 PM

By Bruce Henderson, Craig Jarvis and Jim Morrill

The North Carolina Senate voted down a repeal of House Bill 2 and adjourned Wednesday after a day of increasingly partisan rancor that pitted conservative Republicans against the Charlotte they so distrust.

The state House adjourned without voting on repeal of the bill that has cost North Carolina millions of dollars in lost jobs, sports events and boycotts. And so the promise of compromise between legislators and Charlotte, which enacted the ordinance that gave rise to HB2, dissolved.

Senate members bickered over a measure that would repeal the bill but temporarily ban local ordinances regulating employment practices, public accommodations or access to restrooms.

Democrats and gay rights advocates attacked the measure, introduced by Senate leader Phil Berger, as falling short of a bargain to kill HB2 once Charlotte repealed the ordinance that gave rise to it.

"I'm sorry, this was not the deal. The deal was Charlotte repeals fully and we repeal fully," said state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. "Charlotte was told over and over again, Charlotte, if you take the first step you will be met halfway. Charlotte did that and we're being shoved away one more time."

Republican state Sen. Buck Newton argued the moratorium would prevent measures the "lunatic left of the city of Charlotte and other places want to enact."

"I have no faith in the city of Charlotte, no faith that anybody on the other side at this point ... will act honorably and in good faith to find a way forward," Newton said.

Wednesday's session had been slowed by reluctant lawmakers who support HB2 or don't trust Charlotte's intentions.

The Charlotte City Council, which passed the ordinance that ignited HB2, repealed it Monday. Wednesday morning, after Republicans charged that the ordinance had not been fully erased, council members met again to do that.

Berger's office accused Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, a Democrat who beat Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in November, of killing repeal by pressuring Senate Democrats to vote against it.

"Make no mistake: Roy Cooper and Senate Democrats killed the repeal of HB2, abandoning Roy Cooper's commitment to avoid divisive social issues by shooting down a temporary cooling off period on ordinances like the one that got us into this mess last March," Berger said in a statement. "Their action proves they only wanted a repeal in order to force radical social engineering and shared bathrooms across North Carolina, at the expense of our state's families, our reputation and our economy."

Charlotte had expected, in turn, that legislators would repeal their law. But attempts by Republican lawmakers to short-circuit the special session began minutes after it opened Wednesday.

House Rules Chairman David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, said there weren't enough members of the GOP caucus who support repealing HB2 to approve doing that.

"I felt pretty good about where we were yesterday," Lewis told reporters. "I thought Charlotte had done a full repeal and we were going to come in and consider the same thing. I don't know where we are right now."

The Charlotte council's vote Wednesday morning did not set a Dec. 31 deadline, as the earlier deal had. But it was enough to shake up fragile negotiations among House Republicans who spent four hours in a caucus meeting Tuesday night, before Wednesday's meetings.

"It seems like a small thing, but it's not," Lewis said. "We're trying to act in good faith, and if it was a legitimate mistake that Charlotte made, that's one thing. If it was something else, that really hurts my ability to stand up and tell members it's a re-set. We've said all along we think re-set is the way to go."

Minutes into the House session, Rep. Jeff Collins of Nash County rose to declare the session unconstitutional and decried the "extraordinary hubris" of the Charlotte City Council in prompting it. Two other members joined him.

State Rep. Michael Speciale of New Bern moved that the session be immediately adjourned. He was ruled out of order.

By 11 a.m., the House had gone into a recess that was later extended to 1 p.m. without taking up HB2. House Republicans gathered in caucus. A growing group of protesters gathered outside the chamber.

"It's HB2.2 It doubles down on discrimination. It does not repeal HB2," said state Rep. Chris Sgro, a Guilford County Democrat. "It doesn't help us get the NCAA back, it doesn't help us get the NBA back or Paypal. It means North Carolina remains deeply closed for business."

The Charlotte Chamber, apparently alarmed by the turn of events, sent out an urgent call to action for the public to call legislators.

"This morning the Charlotte City Council approved a full and clean repeal of their nondiscrimination ordinance that led to the state's approval of HB2, a bill that has caused serious economic damage to our economy and to the perception of our state," the chamber said. "The legislature is in special session at this moment. It is not known if there are enough votes to repeal."

As House Republicans mulled their next move, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, filed his own HB2 repeal bill. State Sen. Mike Woodard, a Republican from Durham, and state Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Democrat from Asheville, signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill was intended to make a political point about the Republican-controlled legislature, as it has no chance of passing. "While we wait for NCGOP to make good on their deal, I went ahead and filed a bill to fully repeal HB2," Jackson tweeted. "Let's vote."

Charlotte's council set the fifth special session of the year in motion on Monday with the surprise repeal of a February ordinance that lets transgender people use the public bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

The city council, meeting early Wednesday, voted 7-2 to redo its Monday vote following reports that some legislators were unwilling to vote for a repeal of HB2 because the council did not repeal the entirety of its ordinance.

City officials insisted that Monday's action had removed all provisions that legislators had objected to. "The City Council acted in good faith to do everything that it understood was necessary to facilitate the repeal of HB2," the city said in a statement after the vote.

But Wednesday's vote fully repealed the changes made in the February ordinance.

The ordinance had prompted a whiplash response in March: A one-day legislative session in which conservative Republicans both voided Charlotte's ordinance and wiped away more general protections for LGBT people.

Less certain was what to expect now from legislators, who convened with partisan temperatures still running high.

The North Carolina Republican Party issued a statement at 1 a.m. Wednesday blasting Democrats on City Council and Cooper, claiming "they lied directly to the people" over what was supposed to be a full repeal of the nondiscrimination ordinance. "The HB2 blood is now stain soaked on their hands and theirs alone. What a dishonest, disgraceful shame by Roy Cooper and Charlotte Democrats."

Many Republican lawmakers still support HB2, which they view as a stand for traditional values and protection of women and children from predators. Conservative groups are prodding them to stand firm.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who had stoutly resisted repeal of the ordinance, was left to justify doing just that this week. Roberts has already attracted two potential Democratic rivals for her job, Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles and state Sen. Joel Ford, in part because of her handling of HB2.

Late Tuesday night, Republican council member Ed Driggs released a statement through the city stating the board voted in good faith to do everything it thought was necessary to facilitate the repeal of HB2.

"If the General Assembly needs us to consider doing more, we ask for a clear explanation of what that entails," he stated. "If necessary, Charlotte City Council will act to address any unintended omissions from the ordinance it passed on Monday."

While Roberts and council members have vowed to revisit protections for the city's LGBT residents, it is unclear whether they can regain the protections they repealed.

Democrat John Autry, a Charlotte City Council member recently elected to the North Carolina House, was in the House chamber Wednesday morning.

Asked what was to keep the city from re-adopting its LGBT ordinance if the state repeals HB2, Autry declined to answer directly but said the focus for now is on repeal.

"What's before us right now is to get HB2 repealed," he said. "That should be the order of business and focus for all of us right now."

But some local and national gay rights advocates declined to criticize the city's repeal, saying it was time to move the state forward from HB2.

"#HB2 has caused harm to transgender people in #NC & now must be repealed in full without delay," the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina tweeted after the Charlotte council vote Wednesday.

And while Republican leaders dispute the economic impact of the legislation, it has cost North Carolina tens of millions of dollars as major sports events moved, businesses went elsewhere and critics organized boycotts. Business leaders say it's time to end the episode as the year ends.

(Staff writers Adam Bell, Steve Harrison, Katie Peralta and Ely Portillo contributed.)

(c)2016 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)