‘This was not the deal’: North Carolina fails to repeal contentious ‘bathroom law’ after heated debate

An effort to repeal North Carolina’s contentious “bathroom law” failed on Wednesday, ending what was expected to be a day of bipartisan compromise in one of the nation’s most bitterly divided states.

In a one-day special lawmaking session in Raleigh, legislators convened to undo the law known as House Bill 2, which has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and drawn criticism from Democrats and LGBT-rights advocates.

But partisan disagreement quickly arose in the Senate over a proposal that, while technically repealing the law, would have prolonged its effects well into next year.

Passed in March, HB2 blocks North Carolina towns from passing non-discrimination ordinances to protect LGBT residents. It also forces transgender residents to use the public bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate, rather than their gender identity.

Wednesday’s proposed legislation would have struck HB2 from the books. But it also included a Republican-backed caveat calling for a “cooling-off period,” during which local governments would not be allowed to pass ordinances regulating employment practices and public bathrooms – two of the areas HB2 concerns.

The proposed moratorium would have lasted until 30 days after the end of the 2017 legislative session – an undetermined date.

The caveat led Democrats to question whether such a repeal would have any effect at all, and it ultimately prevented the measure from passing. Several Democratic lawmakers said the Republican offer fell short of the full repeal of HB2 they demanded.

“You give with the right hand and you take back with the left hand,” state Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Democrat who advocated for an unconditional repeal, said on the Senate floor. “It only pushes it halfway. The problem is we won’t be fully back where we were before HB2.”

McKissick said he feared Republicans would turn the proposed moratorium period into a permanent statewide ban on LGBT protections.

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Two protesters hold up signs against passage of legislation in North Carolina, which limits the bathroom options for transgender people, during a rally in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 31, 2016.
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AP/Skip Foreman

Meanwhile, Republicans said a moratorium was necessary to prevent cities like Charlotte from passing the type of ordinance that inspired HB2 to begin with. The controversial state “bathroom law” was crafted as an effort to override a Charlotte non-discrimination ordinance that protected LGBT residents.

“There’s nothing that would prevent Charlotte a week from now from proposing the exact same ordinance,” said Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican. Proponents of the law have argued it protects women and girls from sexual predators, and painted Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance as “social engineering.”

On Monday, Charlotte’s city council agreed to overturn its local ordinance as part of an apparent deal with state Republicans brokered by Roy Cooper, the state’s Democratic governor-elect. But reports emerged on Tuesday that Charlotte had only repealed certain sections of its ordinance, eliciting a strongly worded condemnation from the state’s Republican Party and exacerbating the distrust many rural, conservative lawmakers hold toward the state’s most populous city.

Charlotte officials met early Wednesday to repeal their local ordinance in its entirety, but now face an uncertain future after Democrats came up empty-handed in Raleigh.

“This was not the deal,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Democrat who represents Charlotte. “The deal was, Charlotte repeals fully, we repeal HB2 fully.” Jackson proposed a bill to do just that, but it was quickly ignored in the veto-proof Republican majority chamber.

“Charlotte would not have repealed its ordinance if this had been the deal. Charlotte acted in good faith that we would keep our end of the bargain,” he added.

There was also some discord among state Republicans, some of whom opposed the repeal altogether.

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A bathroom sign welcomes both genders at the Cacao Cinnamon coffee shop in Durham, North Carolina
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Thomson Reuters

Several lawmakers said they feared Wednesday’s result would lead to continued boycotts of the state. Since HB2’s passage in March, businesses have frozen plans to expand in North Carolina, and numerous entertainers have canceled events in the state. The NBA relocated its 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans, and both the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference moved college sports championships outside the state.

Wednesday’s result also signals a deepening partisan divide in North Carolina, where the governor-elect Cooper will inherit a Republican-majority legislature in less than two weeks. Anticipating his arrival, state lawmakers passed measures to limit Cooper’s power during a surprise, last-minute special session last week.

Cooper, who won election by about 10,000 votes over incumbent Pat McCrory, insisted after Charlotte’s vote on Wednesday that a full repeal of the law is necessary.

“Full repeal will help to bring jobs, sports and entertainment events back and will provide the opportunity for strong LGBT protections in our state,” he said in a statement.