WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Tuesday that Republican lawmakers in his state went too far when they passed a sweeping anti-LGBT law this year, and said they need to rein it in before a judge does it for them.
“Yeah, I’ve got issues,” Burr told The Huffington Post when asked if he has problems with his state’s new law, also known as HB 2.
“The legislature botched what they were trying to do,” he said. “It was far too expansive.”
The law, signed in March, is one of the most extreme in the nation when it comes to allowing for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Among other things, it bars transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity, and it prevents municipalities from passing LGBT anti-discrimination ordinances. Cities like Charlotte and Raleigh had such ordinances in place before HB 2. They are now invalid.
Burr has largely avoided talking about the law. He previously said he was out of the country when it passed; stated it’s up to the courts to decide if it’s valid; suggested it doesn’t actually discriminate; and declared it a state issue.
On Tuesday, though, he was clear that he wasn’t happy with it. He also predicted that the law is going to be changed one way or another, so the question now is which branch of government does it.
“It will be decided one of two ways: through the courts, where everybody’s chosen to place it now, or the General Assembly and the Charlotte City Council getting together and solving what was blundered on both sides,” Burr said.
A spokesman for North Carolina’s other Republican senator, Thom Tillis, did not respond to a request for comment on how he feels about HB 2.
A couple of factors may be softening Burr on the issue. One is that polls show HB 2 is increasingly unpopular in the state. A PPP poll released Tuesday found that half of North Carolina voters want the law repealed, compared with 38 percent who want to keep it. Another factor is that Burr is up for re-election, and his opponent, Democrat Deborah Ross, has been hounding him for avoiding talking about HB 2.
“When HB 2 began hurting working folks and businesses started leaving our state, he couldn’t be bothered. Now that he thinks it’s hurting his re-election chances, he’s changing his tune,” Ross spokesman Cole Leiter said in a statement. “Burr’s Washington-style politics of self-interest haven’t worked for North Carolina, and it’s time for a change. Deborah Ross has spoken out against HB 2 and told the truth about its impacts since day one.”
To be clear, Burr is not marching in lockstep with LGBT rights groups here. He repeatedly declined to say if he thinks state lawmakers should fully repeal the law, and he blamed Charlotte City Council members for passing an anti-discrimination ordinance in the first place with transgender bathroom protections in it.
“I think the General Assembly went too far and the City of Charlotte created an issue where there wasn’t a problem,” Burr said.
He also accused President Barack Obama of causing “the stir around the country” over the transgender bathroom issue. Earlier this month, the Obama administration issued guidance to public schools nationwide indicating they must allow transgender students access to bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. The guidance cites the gender equity law, Title IX, as its basis — a move that Burr said exploits a law that was supposed to be about women’s equality in sports.
“To suggest that that was an LGBT initiative has sent outrage through a lot of states,” said the senator. “Plus, the guidance isn’t enforceable.”
Regardless, officials in North Carolina know they have to do something about their law, which has sparked economic boycotts by companies and entertainers that could cost the state as much as $5 billion a year. It looked like something might happen this week in Charlotte, where city council members and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce were working on a compromise with state lawmakers. Under their proposal, the city council would vote to repeal its nondiscrimination ordinance — it’s mostly null because of HB 2, but not entirely — in exchange for a promise from state lawmakers to pass a bill making changes to HB 2 relating to the law’s transgender bathroom provision.
But the tentative deal fell apart Monday night when the council voted against it, after intense lobbying from LGBT rights groups to kill it. The Human Rights Campaign had argued it was a bad proposal because it required the council to repeal its ordinance without any proof that the legislature could deliver on repealing at least part of HB 2.
Even Burr said he didn’t blame local officials for sinking that agreement.
“To repeal it before you know what the General Assembly is going to do would be a mistake,” he said, hopping into a Senate train car taking him away from reporters. “That’s why it’s got to be the General Assembly and the City of Charlotte getting together and coming up with an agreed-upon package.”
This article has been updated to include comments from a spokesman for Deborah Ross, who is challenging Sen. Richard Burr’s re-election.