December 21, 2011North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis defended the 2011 long session of the first Republican-controlled General Assembly since 1870 at a town hall meeting in the High Point City Council chambers at High Point city hall on Thursday, Dec. 15.
Tillis was accompanied by Democratic District 60 state Rep. Marcus Brandon and Republican District 61 state Rep. John Faircloth, both of whom are from High Point and represent Guilford County. The meeting also drew Republican District 73 state Rep. Larry Brown, who represents Davidson and Forsyth counties, and former Republican District 61 state Rep. Laura Wiley.
Tillis fielded questions on education, the justice system, the state lottery and voter-identification bills during the sparsely attended town hall meeting. The 5 p.m. meeting followed a luncheon with local leaders at the Showplace building.
Faircloth, who was a High Point city councilmember before being elected to the state House, gave the invocation. He described Tillis as "in a way, my boss – a man I've come to know in the last year, and to respect greatly in the last year."
Brandon introduced Tillis. He said, "I've got the podium from the speaker, which never happens.
Brandon said he has had differences with Tillis but has always been able to discuss them from the perspective of what's good for North Carolina.
Brandon said, "As long as that's our common bond, we can always sit down and have a conversation about how we're going to get places."
Tillis began by acknowledging the historic takeover of both houses by the Republicans. He took a swipe at Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, saying that, in the decades in which the Democratic Party controlled the state legislature, it made sense that the Democratic governor would be the spokesman for the state government. Now that the government is divided, he said, "I thought it was important for us to get out there and speak to people."
Tillis also said that Republicans were likely to lead the state in the General Assembly for many years – but that they took control of the state legislature at an odd time, during a recession in which they knew they would have to balance the 2011-2013 budget with a couple of billion dollars less in tax revenue than the state would normally have, and the "harsh reality" that $1.5 billion in federal stimulus money that had supported state and local governments for two years was mostly gone.
At the same time, a 1-cent state sales tax expired, reducing revenue, and a $300 million income surtax ended.
In other words, Tillis said, the state legislature cut $1.5 billion in taxes and cut an equal amount in spending. "We did present a balanced budget faster than it has been presented since 1973," he said.
Tillis said, "A lot of detailed decisions had to be made, and I'm certain that most of those decisions were the right ones."
Tillis also touted the Republican-controlled state legislature's redistricting, which he said took a lot of time and was approved by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) faster than in any year since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted. Under the act, North Carolina must get approval for congressional redistricting and 40 North Carolina counties must get DOJ approval for county redistricting.
He said, "On the whole, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished in what you could say was our rookie season."
Most of the questions Tillis fielded were on education – from where the money would come to fund it, how the lifting of the state cap on charter schools would affect it, and how to control waste and ineffective spending in an education sector that has come to suck up 55 percent of the state budget.
Tillis was asked to explain a comment he had made at a town hall meeting in Matthews, North Carolina, to the effect that not all the problems in public education could be solved by throwing more money at them – a statement so obviously true to anyone who has followed public education as to hardly need explaining.
"There is still a debate going on as to whether or not we're putting enough money in education," he said. "I've seen too much waste and too much control placed over local education entities to leave me to believe that."
Tillis said he is in favor of giving local school boards more flexibility in how they spend state money and of moving more of it to pay for education in kindergarten to third grade. "I said more money in that category, and I still believe that," he said. "I still don't believe that you have to have a bigger pie to do that."
As one example of flexibility, he said the legislature has allowed school superintendents to increase class sizes. He said that, at higher grades, there is little data that suggests reducing class size from 24 to 21 students makes much difference in student performance – studies show it takes a much larger reduction in class size to do that, which is too expensive for school systems to do systemwide. Guilford County Schools has done it in some settings, including some of its special academies.
High Point City Councilmember Jim Corey asked about the status of a voter-identification bill in North Carolina.
Tillis said the General Assembly had passed a voter-ID bill patterned on Georgia's, under which voters could use driver's licenses, even expired driver's licenses, and could get free identification at county boards of election if they don't have a driver's license. Perdue vetoed the bill and Republicans didn't have the votes to override her veto.
Tillis said there is a substitute bill in committee that would allow the use of utility bills or the signing of an attestation to your identity under oath in place of government-issued identification, then allow some sort of non-identification alternative for the remainder of voters, "which we believe will be a fairly small population, when you come right down to it," he said.