News: CJ Exclusives

Taylor: Latest H.B. 2 strategies pose risks for Cooper, NCGA leaders

NCSU political scientist notes that compromise repeal plan would require legislative leaders and governor to cede some power

Protesters gathered outside the legislative chambers during a December 2016 special session on House Bill 2. (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Protesters gathered outside the legislative chambers during a December 2016 special session on House Bill 2. (CJ photo by Dan Way)

A compromise vehicle for the controversial “bathroom bill” could exact political consequences on Republican General Assembly leaders and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, one political analyst says.

Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said scuttlebutt suggests House Bill 186 would have sufficient support to pass if it comes to floor votes.

But the fight to get the measure to the floor could be the biggest battle of all.

“If it goes through after them initially trying to stop it, it does present at least the appearance of weakening control” for House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and a win for the rank and file.

“It’s interesting that the coalition that seems to be in favor of the compromise is a sort of ends-against-the-middle battle at the moment rather than left versus the right,” Taylor said.

The only options so far seemed to be Republicans retaining House Bill 2 at all costs or Democrats demanding repeal to go back to life the way it was before. H.B. 2 requires people to use bathrooms, changing facilities, and showers matching their birth anatomy rather than the gender identity they choose for themselves.

“Now you have this compromise, which is bipartisan, which seems to have some support from outside the General Assembly,” Taylor said. The business community, he said, is supportive of H.B. 186, is assuming a larger role in the debate, and lawmakers are feeling new pressures.

“Maybe some of them are feeling liberated because the election is behind them, and the next one is so far off.”

Cooper should be wary if H.B. 186 passes and the economy sees an uptick.

“It doesn’t matter whether H.B. 2 played a role or not. His opponents can say he was stalling progress, he lost, and we can demonstrate that progress because now the economy is doing well,” Taylor said. “If he’s on the wrong side of that, I think it would be politically costly for him.”

H.B. 186 has progressed significantly since the December special session, Taylor said, regardless of what Cooper, Moore, and Berger say.

The progress “might not be itself sufficient to end this episode, but it’s getting closer. It’s possible that we might require one more heave-ho a little bit later on.”

A roomful of bipartisan lawmakers, business and trade group officials gathered in news conference Tuesday in either support of H.B. 186 or optimistic it could be the icebreaker in discussions leading to repeal of H.B. 2.

Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, a primary sponsor of H.B. 186, said he was surprised at how quickly support has ballooned for the bill in the week after its introduction. But, he said, he wouldn’t try to move it out of the House Rules Committee until he has enough votes to pass it. He said he would need 35 Democrats and 35 Republicans for that to happen.

McGrady’s strategy could be altruistic, a bit of grandstanding, or wily maneuvering.

It is possible he thinks he can win either way, Taylor said, by fighting the good fight and going down a hero but in flames. “Or he could be using this tactic to really lean on, obviously, particularly Republican colleagues” for their support.

“I’m pretty close to getting into the 30s on my vote count on this bill the way it is” from Republicans, McGrady said, with Democratic and Republican lawmakers beside him.

Cooper has emphatically waved off support of H.B. 186, most recently Wednesday morning as he released his budget proposal and defended against allegations he has been using obstructionist tactics to prevent an H.B. 2 repeal so he can continue to use the issue for partisan political purposes.

“I am working with Democrats and Republicans in the House to repeal House Bill 2,” he said. “We can get there if we keep talking.”

“Right now I haven’t heard from the governor,” McGrady countered.

“The bill isn’t going to move forward unless I get the Democratic votes,” McGrady said. “I don’t get the Democratic votes unless the governor first gets the Democratic votes.”                                                               

Senate Republicans voted for repeal of H.B. 2 in December,but that measure got no Democratic votes at the prodding of Cooper.

It appears unlikely McGrady will hear from Cooper about H.B. 186 any time soon. The governor said it “falls way short of the votes that are needed to repeal House Bill 2,” and the measure is not “truly bipartisan” despite having four primary sponsors evenly split between parties.

H.B. 186 would preempt local municipalities from enacting ordinances regulating access to bathrooms, changing facilities, and showers at private establishments. The state would regulate use of multi-occupancy bathrooms in public buildings.

McGrady said the narrow preemption is needed, or some municipalities would enact ordinances similar to the one from Charlotte that required private businesses to allow people to use bathrooms they believe correspond to their gender expression.

A recent Crux/Marist poll found Americans oppose transgender people using their choice of locker rooms and showers 66 percent to 27 percent, and oppose them using the bathroom of their choosing 56 percent to 38 percent.

H.B. 186 includes provisions allowing cities under some conditions to designate “protected classes” in their nondiscrimination policies, McGrady said. The legislation also provides a relief valve for communities to place a referendum on the ballot should a set number of residents petition in opposition of a local ordinance.

Cooper said “state-imposed, very low-limit referendum” is a deal killer because “that is going to occur in every single community in North Carolina that passes anti-discrimination ordinances [and] doesn’t help remove the stain from our state.” He said Moore should step up to get this referendum provision out of House Bill 186.

Cooper said the referendum provision is another example of Republicans negotiating in bad faith.

“Every time you get close to something they move the goalposts and they want something else.”