by Will Bryant

CORNELIUS – On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 16, in a room at Aquesta bank, Speaker of the N.C. House Thom Tillis talked with local reporters for an hour about his first legislative session as a leader of the state’s General Assembly.

His demeanor was easy-going and except for constantly snapping a bright-red “think jobs” band on his wrist, Tillis easily reeled off facts about the recent legislative session and the state’s Republican revolution.

Asked about the red band, Tillis said smokers once wore them when trying to quit, before the days of nicotine patches. The smokers were told, “If you had the need to smoke, snap it,” Tillis explained.

“Now I tell people, if you have a need to think about something other than jobs and the economy, snap it, because we’ve got to focus on that right now.”

Tillis called the recent session one of the most productive ever.

“Over 83 legislative days, we passed out and ratified close to 470 measures,” Tillis said.  “We passed 2 1/2 times as many bills as was passed in 2009.”

One of his main goals has been to get North Carolinians employed again, and the only way to do that is by getting the economy on track, he said. “My goal, at the very least, is to make North Carolina the strongest of the struggling economies in the Southeast.”

With majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, Republicans were able to pass a budget that, Tillis said, cuts nearly $1 billion in spending.

Lawmakers reduced revenue primarily by letting 1 cent of the state’s sales tax expire and eliminating a small-business tax that gives a few hundred million dollars back to the state’s small businesses, Tillis said.

But cutting programs to reduce spending was difficult, although he failed to elaborate on exactly what was cut and why it was so difficult.

Tillis also spoke about the upcoming special legislative session on Sept. 12. At that session, lawmakers will consider placing constitutional amendments in front of voters in the May or November 2012 elections.

The proposal getting the most discussion is the Defense of Marriage amendment that, if passed, would legally allow marriage between only a man and woman. Lawmakers also have discussed amending the restructure of the State Board of Education and placing limits on the terms of the speaker of the N.C. House and the president of the N.C. Senate.
Tillis on tourism spending

When asked what he is doing to help his own 98th District, Tillis said he has tried to work with the three North Mecklenburg towns and Visit Lake Norman to reach an interlocal agreement that guarantees funding for the tourism agency while also changing the governing structure of its board.

At the request of local hoteliers, supported by the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, Tillis pushed through a bill this spring guaranteeing Visit Lake Norman 28 percent of local hotel-occupancy taxes gets and 25 percent of local prepared-food taxes. But the bill doesn’t say when the towns have to transfer those taxes, and so far, Visit Lake Norman leaders have been unwilling to allow the towns to appoint half of the governing board and executive committee.

“I have rightly or wrongly tried to work through the Visit Lake Norman Issue, and I have the scars to prove it,” Tillis said.  “I have friends on both sides of the issue, and I’m still working on that one.”

Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte told the Herald last week that Tillis plans to withdraw the Visit Lake Norman legislation if the agency and the towns can’t settle on a new interlocal agreement by the special session in September.

Talking to residents

A few hours after meeting with reporters, Tillis took questions again from a packed house at Cornelius Town Hall.

During the two-hour session, Tillis answered a number of questions on issues ranging from education and transportation to the proposed Defense of Marriage constitutional amendment.

Davidson resident Laura Brannon questioned Tillis’ stance on the issue of gay marriage and asked if he couldn’t have better spent his time and resources focusing on more pressing issues.

“Why are we squandering our taxpayer resources on this hateful legislation?” Brannon asked.

“It’s a very difficult issue,” Tillis said. “But at the end of the day … when I know that over 80 members – that’s Republicans and Democrats – have signed up to have this bill heard, a part of my obligation is to allow these bills to be heard.”

Other voters questioned Tillis on transportation in the meeting, including prospects for a North Line commuter rail project to Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson and the widening of Interstate 77.

“With the commuter rail, we’ve gone back and forth,” Tillis said. “But we’ve got to work it out because we’re in an environment that on any given day, we exceed (federal health) standards for particulates in the air.”

Tillis said the state needs to reform its method for paying for roads and choosing the projects that get done.

“The way we go about making roads in North Carolina is unlike other states, except Texas,” Tillis said. North Carolina still relies on 20th century tax formulas to appropriate money to certain projects. The result is that tax money doesn’t get to where it is need most, he said.

At the end of the meeting, Tillis thanked the crowd for their civility and kind behavior. Voters, in return, seemed grateful for the chance to talk with one of their representatives.

Elyse Dashew, of Charlotte, who questioned Tillis about education funding cycles for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, said she appreciated the chance to talk with the speaker.

“I think it’s wonderful that he came out to meet his constituents,” Dashew said.