The Week in Raleigh: Lawmakers Look Ahead to Post-HB2 Task List

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest presides over the North Carolina Senate during a vote to repeal House Bill 2, the controversial measure dealing with LGBT rights and the use of bathrooms by transgender people on March 30, 2017. Earlier in the week Forest, a Republican, issued a three-page denunciation of ongoing efforts to repeal and replace HB2. (Clifton Dowell | NCInsider.com)

RALEIGH — North Carolina ended a year of wrangling over bathrooms and LGBT rights this week in Raleigh as lawmakers passed, and Gov. Roy Cooper signed, a bill rolling back much of the controversial law known as House Bill 2.

Although the measure isn’t a complete repeal — lawmakers described it as a “reset” to pre-HB2 times — passing the measure clears the way for some businesses to come to North Carolina. It also allows the General Assembly to refocus on other measures that have gotten short shrift over the first two months of the 2017 legislative session.

Lawmakers have spent huge expanses of time over the past year discussing the controversial measure dealing with LGBT rights and the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals both behind closed doors and in public. Although the replacement measure is not universally popular — advocates on both the political left and right panned the measure Thursday — legislative leaders say passing it unclogs the lawmaking pipeline.

“It has consumed the vast majority of this session so far,” House Rules Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, said Thursday shortly after the House vote. Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, who has pushed lawmakers toward compromise for the better part of a year, said Thursday that people both in the General Assembly and outside the building are “fatigued” by the issue.

Economic developers, local officials, and a variety of businessmen say explaining HB2 or mitigating its impact has consumed a lot of time and effort. “Now it’s time to go back to legislating,” McGrady said.

Senate Democratic Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, addresses the North Carolina Senate on March 30, 2017, in support of a repeal of House Bill 2, the controversial measure dealing with LGBT rights and the use of bathrooms by transgender people. Blue said the bill “resets the conversation” about new definitions of discrimination. (Clifton Dowell | NCInsider.com)

After a year in which compromise proved illusive several times, the House and Senate votes Thursday gave those seeking the reset a definitive victory. Senators passed the reset bill 32-16. House members backed it 70-48. A mix of Democrats and Republicans sided for and against the measure. Generally speaking, the two chambers’ most conservative and most liberal members sided against the bill.

While interest groups representing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people called on Gov. Roy Cooper to reject it as a “doubling down” on HB2, the Democratic governor signed the bill soon after it passed. “This is not a perfect deal, and it is not my preferred solution,” Cooper said, insisting that he wanted a simple repeal of House Bill 2. “This is the best deal we could get.”

Although the appeal for compromise won the day, lawmakers may not be completely finished with measures related to HB2. “The bathroom thing is resolved forever,” House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, said. However, he said, Republican legislators may continue to work on bills related to what cities are and are not able to do over the next three years.

IN OTHER BUSINESS:

Class Size: State Senators said Tuesday there would not be a quick “class size fix,” despite calls from school districts and parent teacher organizations. Multiple senators say they are still gathering information from school districts before deciding if and how they will change a state law governing how many students can be in each Kindergarten through third grad classroom. School districts around the state have warned that without changes to a law passed as part of last year’s budget they will have to let go of specialists such as art, music and physical education teachers. “Time is getting very short,” said Leanne Winner, director of government relations at the N.C. School Boards Association. But Senators say they are skeptical of that claim, pointing out that millions of dollars earmarked for reducing Kindergarten-through-third grade class size over the past few years. “We’re still trying to get some information rather than just reacting,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said. “It’s obvious to us that money has been spent on something other than class size reduction.”

School Starts: North Carolina House members are trying to give school districts more leeway with instructional calendars. A House education committee Tuesday backed two bills altering the law that generally requires traditional schools to start no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. School boards want to be able to start earlier, but the tourism industry says it would discourage vacation rentals and take away teen workers. One recommended bill would let districts in 20 counties start two weeks earlier for three years and the results studied. The second bill would let districts align with local community college schedules as long as the opening isn’t before Aug. 15. Senate Republicans historically have opposed changing the calendar law.

Tax Cuts: Major corporate and personal income tax cuts are moving forward in the state Senate, although some Democrats are opposing them because they worry the state will lose billions of dollars in needed revenue. The Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 325, titled “Billion-Dollar Middle-Class Tax Cut,” with a few Democrats voting no. In addition to lowering the personal income tax rate, the plan would increase the standard deduction from $17,500 to $20,000 for a married couple filing jointly, with similar increases for other tax status categories. Because a married couple making less than $20,000 wouldn’t owe any income taxes, the Senate estimates the change would take 94,000 families off the tax rolls.

Term Limits: North Carolina Governors would be limited to serving a total of two terms over their lifetimes if a constitutional amendment cleared by a House Judiciary Committee Wednesday becomes law. House Bill 105 would ask voters to add the restriction for all past and future governors to the state constitution. Currently governors are held to a two consecutive term limit — a rule existing since the 1970s — but can serve again after a one-term break. The bill is now in the hands of the House Committee on Elections and Ethic Laws.

Confirmation: Dr. Mandy Cohen was unanimously recommended Wednesday for confirmation as secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, despite her links to the Affordable Care Act and Gov. Roy Cooper’s push to expand the state’s Medicaid program. Political observers expected a bruising battle for Cohen in the Senate confirmation process, but her credentials and extensive knowledge of an array of issues that confront DHHS apparently dispelled any qualms Republican lawmakers may have about her leading the state’s largest cabinet-level agency.

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Compiled by the Insider State Government News Service for the member papers of the Capitol Press Association. Learn more at NCInsider.com or @NCInsider.