By DAVID BORAKS
N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis patted himself on the back Wednesday for slashing the state budget and cutting taxes during the last session in Raleigh. In a meeting with reporters in Cornelius, he also said Republicans will be back in Raleigh in September to work on constitutional reforms that could include an anti-gay marriage amendment, state Board of Education restructuring, term limits for the House and Senate speakers, and restrictions on local governments’ use of eminent domain to acquire property.
Listen to a full audio replay of the interview with Speaker Tillis below.
Rep. Tillis, a Republican who represents north Mecklenburg’s 98th District, met local reporters at Aquesta Bank headquarters in Cornelius Wednesday afternoon. Later Tuesday, he held a public forum at Cornelius Town Hall that drew about 200 people.
He said a special “constitutional session” of the legislature would begin Sept. 12, and could take up several bills that would put constitutional questions to voters next year, during a May primary or the November general election. He said one of the most likely amendments that could come out of the session would be a proposal to expand the state’s “defense of marriage” law into a full-fledged constitutional ban.
He also will be pushing for an amendment, which already has some support in the legislature, to give the state superintendent of public instruction a seat on the state Board of Education. The House also will be looking at a bill that would ban eminent domain, a practice where cities or towns can forcibly acquire property for public projects. And he said he supports a bill that would limit the terms of the speakers of the House and Senate.
Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly after the November 2010 election. The majorities helped the legislature pass – and then override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto – of a budget that Rep. Tillis said cuts $1 billion spending and $1.5 billion from revenues – primarily by allowing a temporary 1-cent sales tax to expire. [He also said he’s trying to spread the word that the budget also cuts taxes for about 400,000 small business owners who report income on their personal taxes, by exempting the first $50,000 of active income.]
He said he’s proud that Republicans persuaded five “business conservative” Democrats to support the budget and override Gov. Perdue’s veto.
Asked what he has done for local governments and voters in the past two years, Rep. Tillis cited several issues, though in some cases he was on the opposite side from local officials. Among those was the controversy over funding for Visit Lake Norman, the region’s tourism promotion agency. Local governments have been seeking more accountability from Visit Lake Norman, and in the midst of their fight, the Lake Norman Chamber and local businesses successfully lobbied the legislature to pass a bill that guarantees 28 percent of hotel occupancy taxes and 25 percent of prepared food taxes for Visit Lake Norman.
“I’ve tried to get in and help, rightly or wrongly, and trying to work through the Visit Lake norman issue, and I have the scars to prove it,” Rep. Tillis joked. “I have friends on both sides of the issue. I’m still working on that one.”
Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville are negotiating with Visit Lake Norman on a proposed “interlocal agreement” that would clarify the relationship between the towns and the group, and could alter the makeup of its board.
Rep. Tillis also said he got involved in the effort to bring a new mental hospital to Huntersville, and to resolve a dispute between Mecklenburg County and Carolinas Medical Center. That mental facility is expected to be built on the site of the former Huntersville Oaks, off N.C. 115.
The speaker also acknowledged that he was up against area towns on a bill he pushed to keep local governments out of the telecommunications business. Davidson and Mooresville own the MI-Connection Communications System, which provides cable, telephone and internet service in the Lake Norman area.
“We’ve been on the opposite side of the issue on MI-Connection,” he said. “We passed the Level Playing Field bill, which I’ve supported from the beginning.”
Rep. Tillis said he did try to work with the towns to limit the bill’s effect on MI-Connection. “What we tried to do there, though, was to be absolutely certain that we held MI-Connection harmless,” he said. “They came into this based on the rules that existed at the time and we spent a lot of time consulting with them, they came to Raleigh several times to make sure that we held them harmless.”
“My main driver behind that is, ultimately, when I’m hold the town harmless, I’m holding the taxpayers and the town harmless,” he said.
Area officials fought the bill. The major complaint was that unlike private companies, which may operate wherever want, MI-Connection is now restricted to a specified territory. Local officials have said that could hurt the system’s value if they eventually decided to sell it.
Roads were another issue on the speaker’s mind. He said he thinks the state’s road planning process needs reform. “The way we go about making roads in North Carolina is unlike other states, except Texas,” he said. The state’s “equity” funding formula, which guarantees that funds are spread out around the state, is “out of date,” he said, because it fails to take account of where money is needed most.
In particular, he said, the north Mecklenburg corridor is one of the least funded in the state, even as traffic here grows.
Asked if he supports the Red Line North Commuter Rail Project, which would connect Mooresville and Charlotte, he said he thinks the projected costs are too low. “I have real concerns whether they’ve done the math right to do commuter rail,” he said. He also said the north line is likely to face competition from other communities around the state, which now also are proposing their own rail projects.
Meanwhile, he’d like to see the state get out of the rail business. The state owns the tracks that currently serve freight lines and Amtrak service. “It’s one of the things I hope to sell,” he said. He said a study has estimated the railroad’s value at $200 million.
Rep. Tillis also told reporters he remains committed to his pledge to serve no more than four terms. He’s in the midst of his third term, which means if he’s re-elected in 2012, he would serve only one more term.
Rep. Tillis said he’s sometimes asked if he’s trying to run government like a business.
“You can’t run democracy like a business, but you can run the business of government like a business,” he said.
LISTEN TO THE SPEAKER
Listen to the full 1-hour interview between local reporters and Speaker Tills. Click the play button to start.
Can’t see the player or hear the audio? Download the mp3 file, right-click and save HERE>
(MP3, 63 mins)