RALEIGH — Tense negotiations over a deal to undo North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” gave way Friday to uncertainty.
Will the compromise Gov. Roy Cooper signed Thursday quash the furor that made businesses, sporting events, conventions and entertainers pull out of the state in a yearlong economic backlash?
State Democratic and Republican leaders are declaring that their compromise will restore North Carolina’s reputation as a welcoming place to do business. But some business leaders are doubtful, some entertainment industry leaders are scornful, and LGBT advocates are outraged.
House Bill 142, titled “AN ACT TO RESET” the law created by House Bill 2, is not, critics say, a true repeal.
Reached through back-room deal-making, it still exposes gay and transgender people to discrimination whenever they go to a hotel, restaurant, locker room or bathroom, rights advocates say.
“I don’t know why any of these people thought they could use the exact secret process and incompetence that got them into this problem to get them out of this problem,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in an interview Friday. She complained that transgender people were left out of the negotiations.
All five legislators who represent Robeson County voted in favor, including Sen. Danny Britt and Reps. Charles Graham, Garland Pierce, Brenden Jones and Ken Goodman.
HB142 has now eliminated HB2’s requirement that transgender people use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings. But the new law also makes clear that only state legislators — not local government or school officials — can make rules for public restrooms from now on.
HB2 also invalidated any local ordinances protecting gay or transgender people from discrimination in the workplace or in public accommodations. HB142 prohibits local governments from enacting any new such protections until December 2020.
“There is a moratorium on civil rights,” said Keisling. “Local governments can no longer protect people, and that’s never OK. Any moratorium on civil rights is always disgraceful in the United States.”
The stakes are high. An Associated Press analysis found the law would cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years. The tally was based on companies and events that already backed out, meaning that money won’t likely return even with House Bill 2 gone.
The response to the “reset” from business leaders was mixed, despite an optimistic tone struck by Cooper, the state’s recruiter-in-chief.
“Companies that I have talked to, companies that I have recruited, who were hesitant or refusing to bring businesses to our state before the passage of today’s bill now are telling me: We are coming,” the governor said after signing the bill.
The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce thanked Cooper and Republican legislative leaders “for coming together on a bipartisan basis to find a solution.”
But some companies issued negative statements, such as the Durham-based advertising agency McKinney.
“As a national agency with a global creative reputation, our success depends upon attracting the very best talent and clients to Durham. This new bill continues to stand in the way of that and its impact extends to our office in New York,” McKinney CEO Brad Brinegar said.
IBM, which has a large Raleigh-area operation, also expressed reservations.
“IBM opposed North Carolina’s H.B.2 because it discriminates against people for being who they are. We welcome its repeal, but stronger local nondiscrimination laws should not be pre-empted,” said the company’s chief diversity officer, Lindsay-Rae McIntyre.
Among the high-profile cancellations was Bruce Springsteen, who backed out of a Greensboro concert because of House Bill 2. Asked about the new law, Springsteen guitarist Steven Van Zandt tweeted: “Hopefully the NCAA will see through this ‘fake repeal,’ to paraphrase our President. The AP can print that!”
Movie director Rob Reiner, an activist for equal rights and major supporter of Democratic candidates, urged colleagues to continue avoiding the state, tweeting: “Entertainment leaders: don’t fall for this ‘deal.’ Doesn’t repeal #HB2.”
Money and politics aside, transgender people remained frustrated and worried about their safety.
“It’s a very weak bill. It’s not a full repeal,” said Vivian Taylor, a National Guard veteran and transgender woman from North Carolina. “It’s obviously just there to try to make the NCAA basketball people happy.”
Whether it succeeds at that remains up in the air.
The NCAA already removed events from North Carolina for the current school year, and is deciding now on locations for neutral-site championships through the spring of 2022. It has threatened to keep siting its sporting events in other states as long as House Bill 2 remains on the books.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said Thursday that the association will soon decide whether its replacement represents “a sufficient change in the law.”
The Atlantic Coast Conference also relocated sporting events. After Thursday’s General Assembly action, it said it would “reopen the discussion” about holding neutral site championships in North Carolina.
Companies seeking to avoid business risks generally steer clear of places embroiled in turbulent social issues, but the new legislation could be enough to restore North Carolina’s reputation, said Paige Webster, a consultant in Phoenix who advises companies on where to build new operations.
“I think that stigma will go away,” Webster said. “It’s going to open the doors for corporations to take another look.”
But the angry reaction by gay-rights activists means the issue could remain a red flag, said Pete Mohan, a site selection consultant in Florida.
“It’s more of a stopgap than anything else,” Mohan said. “The whole situation has sort of soured the broader national desire to locate in North Carolina.”