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Gannon: Amid HB 2 controversy, relative quiet from economic developers

RALEIGH – As the big business objections to House Bill 2 roll in, you have to wonder what the state’s top economic developers think about the legislation sparking debate across the country.

So far, they’ve been pretty darn quiet. And what they have said has been measured.

So we don’t really know.

As the business backlash grows, you also have to wonder whether – either behind closed doors or in public – they’ll start to speak more freely about it or lobby for changes when the General Assembly comes back to the capital later this month.

House Bill 2 nullified a Charlotte ordinance that would have allowed transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, instead of requiring them to use the bathroom for the gender on their birth certificates as the new law does. It also prohibited other cities and counties from adopting nondiscrimination ordinances in support of the LGBT community and eliminated the ability of employees to sue in state court for alleged discriminatory firing. They still can sue in federal court, but that is more cumbersome.

I’m not going to reiterate all of the corporate giants and other business types that have come out against House Bill 2 and threatened the state economically since it was passed by the legislature on March 23. You can find the list easily with a Google search. (There’s also a list of House Bill 2 supporters floating around online).

But it’s more difficult with a Google search to learn what the state’s top economic development officials think about it. That might not be a coincidence. They work at the whim of Gov. Pat McCrory, who signed the bill and is defending it publicly, although he might support changes.

Christopher Chung is CEO of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, which contracts with the Commerce Department to recruit and expand businesses and market the state to tourists and the film and sports industries. Chung was quoted in The Charlotte Observer shortly after House Bill 2’s passage, saying the organization recognizes “the wide range of opinions on the new legislation, but as an organization that performs under contract with the state government, the EDPNC does not take positions on matters of public policy.”

A few days later, he added this: “We continue to stay focused on our efforts to aggressively promote North Carolina for new business investment, international trade, and tourism, film production and sports.”

Chung has been careful not to comment much on public policy matters, leaving that mainly to his board of directors and John Skvarla, state commerce secretary.

But when I looked for comments from Skvarla on House Bill 2 – through a Google search, press releases and searches on news websites – I found none. I might have missed something, but he hasn’t been out there widely sharing his opinions about the legislation or its potential effects on the state’s ability to recruit businesses.

It would defy common sense to believe that the jobs of Chung and Skvarla aren’t at least a little more difficult today than they were the day before House Bill 2 passed. I’m sure they are spending a lot of time answering questions.

Also, Guy Gaster, director of the N.C. Film Office, told the Wilmington StarNews that the office’s “focus will continue to be on promoting North Carolina as a destination for productions and the opportunities the state provides. Our mission remains the same.” His comments came as film production companies spoke out against House Bill 2 and threatened not to film here in the future.

It would defy common sense not to believe that Gaster’s job just got a little more difficult, too.

What’s scarier: Businesses speaking out against House Bill 2 and threatening economic sanctions if the bill isn’t repealed or the state’s top recruiters biting their tongues as businesses threaten to walk?

I would love to be a fly on the wall as Skvarla, Chung and the state’s other economic developers talk to the governor and legislators about House Bill 2.

Patrick Gannon is the editor of the Insider State Government News Service in Raleigh.

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