As you’ve likely heard by now, last Wednesday, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed ‘House Bill 2’ into state law. It rescinds any and all local laws within the state providing LGBT protections, and forbids any such local laws from being enacted in the future (and, of course, protects us all from the terrifying scourge of transgender people going to the bathroom). It’s sweeping legislation, blatantly discriminatory, wildly overreaching in its scope – and thus to many people (self included), profoundly un-American. Because of that, leaders in many industries, including my own, have threatened to remove their business from the state. Surely the threat of such a negative economic impact will cause the legislators of the state to see reason.
I fear, however, it might not be as simple as that.
Over the past few years, for a variety of reasons, the bulk of my family has moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s a small city, featuring lots of picturesque beaches and the childhood home of Woodrow Wilson. Since the 1980s, Wilmington has also been home to a rather bustling film industry – Dino Di Laurentiis took advantage of the state’s tax incentives and right-to-work laws to build his own film studio, and it’s been home to film and television productions ever since (Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill both shot there, so it’s clearly the mark of quality).
In 2014, however, the state of North Carolina’s system of tax incentives was removed, by the same State Legislature and Governor Pat McCrory who are making news today. In its place was created a grant fund, to which filmmaker would have to specially apply to have any subsidies approved. This fund only had ten million dollars allocated to it, however – plenty of money for you or I, of course, but not to serve as the basis of a local economy. As of last year, only three productions total were left filming in an area that once had far, far more than that.
There’s no good economic reason for such a change to have been made – tax incentives for film production have a well documented track record for generating enough economic activity to pay for themselves. A state-run fund actually offers more opportunities for abuse, so it’s not like this change satisfies any sort of libertarian or anti-corruption objections. No, the reason for this change, as well as the reason for HB2, is the religious prejudice of the law-makers. The film industry is inherently immoral, after all, and any moneys given to filmmaking projects should only be given to projects meeting specific (i.e. conservative Christian) moral guidelines. This isn’t hyperbole – one of the lawmakers spearheading the change was Phil Berger, who specifically pointed to the filming of the 2007 film Hound Dog in North Carolina (in which the actor Elle Fanning filmed a rape scene, if you’ll recall) as a reason to create an appointed political panel to decide which films deserved funding.
Estimates from last year suggest that the amount spent by the film industry and pumped into the Wilmington economy, once amounting to $170 million, was down to $50 million as a direct result of this change. You’d think that this would suggest to somebody that a mistake had been made. But so far, no such change is in sight – and this is why I fear that economic boycott by itself won’t have an effect on HB2, either. Since the election of 2012, a veto-proof Republican supermajority has controlled the North Carolina legislature, and that supermajority has been dominated by religious conservatives. (This is an important distinction to make – after all, I grew up among Republicans who understood economics, and would be aghast by all of this.) They’re true believers – and true believers can rationalize away such things as economic downturns – especially if they’re centered in more “liberal” parts of the state whose have clearly brought it upon themselves by their iniquities. No, the economic damage would have to be so great, and so widespread, that the citizens themselves, tired of dealing with its constant effects, would rise up and remove their inept legislators from office. (Presumably at the ballot box – I run a civilized blog around here, after all.)
Fortunately, this may still come to pass. North Carolina is at risk of losing $4.5 billion in Title IX funding as a result of HB2, which is an economic hit that really can’t be ignored or confined to one city. The citizens seem to be aware of this – a recent PPP poll reports only 25% of state respondents approving of the legislation. And it may well be that those family members of mine of whom I spoke at the beginning may have much to do with this. The population of North Carolina has been increasing over the past few years, its numbers swelled by new arrivals from the Northeast just like them, who have a far more secular and pragmatic outlook and no patience for false religious grandstanding, regardless of their party affiliation. So perhaps the moment of reckoning for North Carolina’s legislature is at hand, and the changing demographics of the state may indeed hasten that moment’s arrival.
I only hope that moment arrives soon, because I’m running out of family members to send down there.