ROCKINGHAM — Teachers are likely to see a boost in their paychecks after summer vacation, Scotland County’s state lawmakers say, and while the controversial law could be tweaked, don’t expect a wholesale repeal of House Bill 2.
The N.C. General Assembly reconvened for its 2016 short session on Monday evening, and state Sen. Tom McInnis and Reps. Ken Goodman and Garland Pierce agreed educators’ pay will be on the legislature’s front burner.
“It will be one of the No. 1 issues,” said Pierce, D-Scotland. “It’s a political year. I think there’s going to be a real push. The party in power will lead that effort, and they will be able to say, ‘Look, we gave everybody raises.’”
North Carolina ranks 46th in the nation in average teacher pay. Gov. Pat McCrory on Friday released proposed budget adjustments that could give some educators as much as a $5,000 raise. State employees would see one-time bonuses totaling 3 percent of their salary up to a maximum of $3,000.
McCrory says an anticipated surplus in state revenue should be used to reward teachers and public employees.
“This isn’t our money,” he said during a Friday press conference. “It’s the people’s money.”
While the governor and legislative leaders tout teacher pay raises, lawmakers will remain under public pressure over House Bill 2, which limits transgender people’s access to public restrooms, rewrites nondiscrimination policies, eliminates workers’ right to bring discrimination claims in state court and bars cities from setting their own minimum wage.
Supporters and opponents of the bill’s provisions held rallies in the state capital on Monday when the House and Senate convened.
“I think the bathroom portion of it will remain as-is,” McInnis said. “The jury’s still out if there’s any appetite for massaging anything else.”
McCrory signed an April 12 executive order adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of categories protected from employment discrimination in state government agencies. He also has urged the General Assembly to reinstate workers’ right to sue over discrimination in state courts.
“I think the House is probably going to do something with House Bill 2 similar to what the governor suggested,” said Goodman, D-Richmond.
Critics say HB2 allows private companies to discriminate against people who are gay or transgender and creates more problems than it solves by requiring transgender people to use the restroom corresponding with the gender on their birth certificate in public buildings.
Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have defended the law against a wave of business backlash. More than 160 companies have signed a letter calling for its repeal, PayPal pulled a 400-job expansion in protest and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Charlotte could lose the 2017 All-Star Game if the law is not repealed.
Pierce said he discussed HB2 during a recent phone call with the speaker.
“He said they plan to take some of the other parts out,” Pierce said. “He told me point-blank the bathroom provision will stay.”
McInnis, Goodman and Pierce all voted to pass HB2. As Democrats, Pierce and Goodman have been criticized by some in their own party for supporting the bill, which opponents see as a socially conservative incursion on personal choice and a signal to employers that it’s acceptable to discriminate against gay and transgender people.
“I haven’t heard the outcry from constituents,” Pierce said, noting that many residents in his rural district support HB2. “A few emails, but overall, most people still believe it’s a common-sense bill.”
Pierce said his own understanding of the issue continues to evolve and he’s committed to finding compromise wherever possible.
“They’ve got to do something about House Bill 2,” he said. “Nobody will get everything they want.”
Other issues that could surface include a regulatory reform measure to scale back the number of professions that require state occupational licenses and tweaks to the formula for distributing sales tax revenue between urban and rural counties.
“I will strive to work for equality, equity and fairness in the distribution of our sales tax in North Carolina,” McInnis said. “We made a little headway in the long session.”
Goodman noted that “there will always be some surprises” in the issues discussed, but said legislative leaders don’t want to extend their stay in Raleigh too late into the summer.
“My folks are telling me we need to be prepared to be at the Fourth of July celebration at the Ellerbe Lions Club to watch the fireworks,” McInnis said, “and not be going back to Raleigh after that.”
Reach Richmond County Daily Journal Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @corey_friedman.