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Will old idea win HB2 repeal?

The law known at HB2

A Democratic lawmaker is trying to use a Republican idea to win support for a HB2 repeal bill.

Sen. Joel Ford (D-Mecklenburg) filed Senate Bill 332 on Tuesday, proposing a full repeal of the controversial Bathroom Bill - plus a "cooling off period" that would prevent cities from changing non-discrimination ordinances until 30 days after the Legislature adjourns this summer.

HB2 requires transgender people to use multi-stall restrooms in public buildings that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates and blocks expansion of LGBT rights in local ordinances and state law. It drew national protests.

Ford's proposal mirrors the same Republican proposal that derailed the HB2 repeal efforts in late 2016. At a special session before the holidays, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) led the effort to attach a moratorium on new non-discrimination ordinances for six months. Roy Cooper - still Governor-Elect at the time - urged his Democratic colleagues to vote against it.

Political moves to repeal HB2 are reaching a critical point, with the NCAA expected to schedule tournaments for the next six years later this spring.

A previous compromise bill, House Bill 186, hasn't gained any momentum despite some bi-partisan support and a broad endorsement from business and trade organizations across the state. Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson), one of the four sponsors of House Bill 186, hoped his proposal could secure enough votes for passage in his chamber. A deal between Cooper and Republican legislative leaders in December to repeal HB2 fell apart amid political acrimony.

"It's a bill that I view as sort of a bipartisan path forward to deal with an issue that is very complex and needs to be resolved," McGrady told reporters.

The other sponsors of the bill are Republican Rep. Ted Davis Jr., and Democrats Rep. Marvin Lucas and Rep. Ken Goodman.

GOP lawmakers approved HB2 in response to Charlotte city leaders approving a controversial February 2016 ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the restroom aligned with their gender identity. The state law prompted some businesses and sporting events to spurn North Carolina. The NBA moved its All-Star game out of Charlotte, and the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference withdrew championship events this academic year.

Any bill also would need to pass the GOP-led Senate. Both chambers would either need to have overwhelming Republican support or decent backing from both Democrats and Republicans to withstand any potential veto from Cooper. Cooper offered his own legislation last week, but even the same LGBT rights groups against Wednesday's proposal opposed his offer.

Equality North Carolina Executive Director Chris Sgro, a former state representative, has said anything but a "clean repeal of HB2" is "a distraction from the real issue."

Under HB186, state lawmakers would still control policy decisions over the use of multi-stall bathrooms in public buildings. Cities could expand other anti-discrimination protections, like those covering sexual orientation, after a four-month process. But a referendum on the ordinance would be required if opponents get above a threshold of signatures of registered voters in the city.

"Discriminating against gay and transgender people is bad. Removing state cause of action for employment discrimination on the basis of race or gender is bad. Preventing municipalities from setting their own minimum wage walls is bad. ... losing on 6 years of NCAA tournament games and losing the NBA All Star game. All bad," Sgro said.

House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Raleigh said the referendum was "a non-starter for me ... I never think that it's a good idea to put the rights of the minority on the ballot."

The measure also would increase penalties for certain crimes that occur in public restrooms or locker rooms. It would address concerns by some HB2 supporters that letting people use public bathrooms based on gender identity could be used as a pretense by sexual predators. But there's little evidence the issue is a widespread problem.

"We don't need a referendum that will hurt cities' abilities to govern, put civil rights on the ballot and cause hundreds of mini HB2s across the state of North Carolina for years to come," Sgro said. "Can you imagine that kind of sustained economic damage and what kind of decades-long debate that we will face?"

Social conservatives, meanwhile, say HB2 should remain in place and have lobbied lawmakers to preserve the law.

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