Can North Carolina find compromise over the controversial bathroom bill?

The proposal does away with House Bill 2 and increases penalties for crimes in public bathrooms, the governor said at a news conference Tuesday with the top Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. 

Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, center, holds a press conference in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, with House Democratic leader Darren Jackson, left, and state Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue, to say he will offer a compromise bill to Republicans so that HB2 can be repealed.

North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper proposed Tuesday what he called a compromise to repeal the state's so-called bathroom bill, saying a new measure is designed to allay fears by some over public bathroom safety.

But a powerful leader in the Republican-controlled General Assembly dismissed it, signaling that any agreement between the governor and GOP lawmakers is still distant. Even a close Cooper ally in the gay rights movement said he didn't support the governor's idea, calling the proposal a distraction from a repeal of what's known as House Bill 2.

The law approved last March by GOP lawmakers and then-Gov. Pat McCrory triggered backlash from businesses and LGBT advocates who say it's discriminatory because it requires transgender people to use restrooms in public buildings that correspond to the sex on their birth certificates. It also excludes sexual orientation and gender identity from local and statewide antidiscrimination protections. A federal trial to decide HB2 is scheduled to begin later this summer.

Cooper's proposal comes as New Orleans welcomes the NBA All-Star game this weekend. The city of Charlotte was supposed to host multimillion-dollar event, but the NBA pulled out after the law was passed. The NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference also moved several sporting events and businesses such as PayPal decided not to expand in North Carolina.

"It will bring back the NCAA, it will bring back the ACC, the NBA and it will bring back jobs," Cooper said.

The proposal does away with House Bill 2 and increases penalties for crimes in public bathrooms, the governor said at a news conference with the top Democratic leaders in the House and Senate. It would also tell local governments seeking ordinances covering sexual orientation and gender identity to give legislators 30 days' notice before doing so.

Lawmakers passed HB2 weeks after the Charlotte City Council voted to expand a local ordinance protecting people based on sexual orientation and gender identity at hotels, restaurants and other public buildings.

HB2 supporters have argued letting people choose public bathrooms based on gender identity can be used as a pretense by sexual predators. The U.S. Justice Department and HB2 critics have said the threat is practically non-existent.

Senate leader Phil Berger said the stronger punishments for crimes in bathrooms aren't enough.

"What is the governor's position on whether or not men should be allowed to share restrooms, lockers and showers with women and girls?" Berger told reporters. "I don't see this as a compromise. I don't see this as anything different that what he's been saying all along."

Cooper's proposal represents a change in tactics by the new governor, who has been seeking a repeal-only bill. Cooper said HB2 "doesn't do anything to protect anybody." His proposal appeared designed to pull in more votes from Republicans wavering on keeping the law.

"Regardless of whether I believe House Bill 2 addresses that problem in any way, I want to say this: I hear you and I have a proposal that specifically addresses your concerns," the governor said.

In December, an apparent deal between Cooper — then the governor-elect — and the legislature to repeal HB2 collapsed. Interest picked up in recent days after a statewide sports development association warned legislators in a letter that action must be taken very soon or the state would be disqualified from hosting NCAA events for the next five years.

Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality North Carolina, said the 30-day waiting period for local governments was unnecessary, saying Charlotte leaders deliberated publicly for a long time on their ordinance. And new penalties aren't needed because LGBT people are not a public safety risk, he said.

"I don't support the proposal. I think that what we need to do is be squarely focused on the repeal of HB2," Sgro told reporters. "Every other piece of this conversation is a distraction."

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