The first two days of the 2016 short session of the General Assembly couldn’t have been more dissimilar.
Monday, the official opening day, contained few of the usual ceremonies. Protests instead dominated the day, with dozens of arrests and rallies both for and against House Bill 2, the lone bill that resulted from the last time legislators got together to make law.
Tuesday, the place was busy, but much quieter with legislators and staff occupied meeting tight deadlines for bill filing.
The debate over what to do about House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, passed in a one-day special session last month, stands in contrast as well.
For now, Republican leaders in both chambers and Democrats, who Monday morning introduced a repeal bill, remain far apart. At a pro-HB2 rally Monday afternoon, legislators who backed the bill told a crowd of roughly 2,100 supporters that they planned to stand firm and not touch the law, despite the pressure building on the state to reverse course.
At a press conference not long after that, the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said they wanted to see a full repeal and not a piecemeal approach that might leave some of the bill intact.
Sen. Dan Blue said the state has a very short window of time to repair its reputation or risk suffering long-lasting consequences. The state’s brand, he said, has suffered on a global level.
“I think that this short session is the one opportunity for North Carolina to stem the reputational harm,” he said.
Still, there is little hope among even HB2’s most fervent opponents that the legislature will budge.
Activists seek cultural change
Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, D-Asheville, a newly elected Buncombe County commissioner and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, said while she hopes the General Assembly leadership changes its mind, they appear to be digging in their heels.
Beach-Ferrara, who spoke at a Monday morning rally outside the governor’s office, said the demonstrations in Raleigh and elsewhere have been valuable despite the hard line taken by legislators against repeal.
“The value is in people sharing their stories and the impact of the law and how intolerable it is to a broad and diverse group of North Carolinians,” she said. The protests, she said, are an important statement that many feel that the legislature has gone beyond its mandate by trying to write their beliefs into law.
“When our elected officials transgress the boundaries of their duties, we have the responsibility to show up.”
Her organization’s mission for now, she said, it to try and get the law repealed. But long-term the effort will be about changing the culture that supports it. The state, she said, needs to break out of the script.
“We need to find ways to connect with each other,” Beach-Ferrara said. “We can’t just have this mutual condemnation. I grew up a gay kid in North Carolina. As an LGBT person in this state, you can run away, you can leave, or you can try to make a home here.”
Despite the economic consequences and a new poll showing that a majority of North Carolinians think the law has damaged the state’s reputation and business climate, the WNC legislative delegation remains divided on party lines on whether to take up a full or partial repeal of the bill.
HB 2 also includes controversial provisions that eliminate the right to sue in state court over any form of workplace discrimination and prevents cities and counties from enacting living wage rules and additional discrimination protections.
Rep. Michele Presnell, R-Yancey, said she wants to move past the HB2 fight and focus on the budget.
Asked whether she would support a repeal or breaking the bill into parts and voting on each section as some have suggested, she replied, “Absolutely not, as firm as I can be. I don’t want to move anything in it.”
There are signs that the controversy has at least some HB2 supporters looking for options.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, told a WLOS reporter Tuesday that if it were up to him, he would like to see a statewide referendum.
“Let’s put it on the ballot and get it over with once and for all,” Apodaca said in interview with the station.
“If the majority wants this, fine. If they don’t, fine.”
Looking ahead on the budget
The roll out of the governor’s budget scheduled for Wednesday morning kicks off official work on a $22 billion spending plan, the main objective of the short session.
Gov. Pat McCrory revealed his priorities at a press conference last week, but didn’t release details.
Among the main items is the governor’s proposal for an across-the-board increase in teacher pay, plus targeted raises to improve recruiting and retention of science and math teachers. McCrory also proposed targeted raises for some state employees and a one-time 3 percent bonus.
Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Watauga, said that while he supports raises for teachers, he thinks the governor should have proposed a better deal for others on the state payroll.
“He left out state employees in my opinion,” Jordan said. “From my first term I have always stood up and argued for (raises) to be equal for all sides.”
Presnell said some money in the budget can go toward teacher raises, but it has to be balanced with other needs.
“There’s a lot to be done, not just for teachers,” she said. “They’re not the only ones. There are state employees and there’s a lot of (Department of Transportation) work that has to be done.”
Apodaca, who retires at the end of this session after seven terms, said he wants to “get done and get out.”
He said the western region has made headway in recent sessions getting priorities like a western crime lab funded.
“We’re still working on a DWI court for Asheville,” he said. “We hope to get that done this session. Other than that, we’re in pretty good shape.”