Tillis looking to establish network of communication.
Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican and Speaker of North Carolina’s House of Representatives, made a visit to Macon County last Thursday, Dec. 8, hosting a roundtable discussion with county business leaders and local public officials at Southwestern Community College’s (SCC) Cecil Groves building. The visit marks the first time North Carolina’s Speaker of the House has visited Macon County since Liston B. Ramsey’s tenure as Speaker in the 1980s.
Tillis explained that his motive for making a tour across Western North Carolina (WNC) was to establish a network of communication, to listen to the concerns and advice offered by business leaders in WNC. “We are trying to come out and speak with business people,” said Tillis. “One of the problems of not being in the majority for over 140 years is that you don’t spend a whole lot of time building a network and having a lot of advisors and leadership. I thought it was important to get out here and talk with business leaders and community leaders to let you know that you have an open door in Raleigh,” he said.
Macon County Commissioner Kevin Corbin organized the meeting, where a wide array of issues was brought up for discussion, including rising health-care costs, excessive regulations, preservation of the state’s community college system, taxes, jobs, and next year’s elections.
Corbin’s fellow commissioner and Republican, Ron Haven, attended the meeting, along with Phil Drake of Drake Enterprises, Nantahala Bank CEO Bill VanderWoude, Macon Bank Director Beverly Mason, Macon County EDC Director Tommy Jenkins, state House Rep. Roger West (D-120), SCC officials, and other Macon County businesspeople.
Tillis, who moved to Mecklenburg County from Florida in 1998 and is currently serving out his third term in the state House, was elected to the Speakership position last January after Republicans won control of the N.C. General Assembly in the 2010 elections. The victory gave Republicans control of the state legislature for the first time since 1870.
Upon introducing himself, Tillis told the roundtable that his main concern going forward is job creation. Tillis and other Republican legislators continue to wear a red wristband, which simply reads ‘Jobs’ and ‘Economy’, a message Republicans hope resonates with North Carolinians in the 2012 elections.
Tillis noted his upbringing in the community college system, saying that he was a product of the institution and that he fully understands their importance to North Carolina communities. The Speaker went to work in a manufacturing warehouse after graduating from high school, before finally deciding to enroll in Nashville State Technical Institute. If it wasn’t for community colleges, “I’d probably still be in that warehouse,” said Tillis in an effort to recognize SCC prior to the roundtable discussion.
Before moving on to talk about other agenda items, Speaker Tillis thanked SCC for their support in making Macon County and the surrounding area a viable region economically, and assured SCC representatives that the legislature would continue to use the community college system to enhance workforce development initiatives statewide. “I believe community colleges are finely tuned to the communities they serve,” stated Tillis.
A good rookie season
Tillis believes his Party’s rookie season in the majority has proved to be a fruitful one, as the legislature cut $1.5 billion in taxes, passed medical malpractice and tort reform, and worker’s compensation reform.
The GOP legislature let the income tax surcharges and one cent sales tax increase enacted by the previous legislature expire last summer, after overriding Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of their budget with the help of five House Democrats. Later on, Gov. Perdue signed a major overhaul of the State’s worker’s compensation system in June, capping disability benefits for injured workers at 500 weeks instead of the previous lifetime availability of benefits, while extending the amount of time temporary partial benefits can be collected to 500 weeks, or 9.6 years. The bill received overwhelming support from both Parties.
Although Gov. Perdue vetoed the Medical Malpractice reform bill in July, Tills and state Senate leaders managed to garner enough support to override her veto, enacting a law that Republicans hope will contain rising health-care costs by preventing frivolous lawsuits from being filed, thereby assisting doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes from paying out rageous medical malpractice insurance rates, according to the law’s supporters.
Tillis stated that the legislature has taken initial steps in reforming the State’s Employment Security Commission (ESC) as well, an organization Tillis thinks is “in shambles.” The legislature managed to pass the measure by overriding yet another Perdue veto, placing the ESC into the N.C. Department of Commerce. Tillis and other GOP legislators want to modify how unemployment benefits are distributed by the State when they reconvene next year.
Future agenda and regulations
After briefing the roundtable about what the legislature has done in their first year in power, Tillis opened the floor up for comments. Bill Vander- Woude of Nantahala Bank told Tillis that small business owners and entrepreneurs were hit particularly hard in this recession. VanderWoude went on to say that excessive regulations and taxation were prohibiting the private sector from fully taking off, advising Tillis to promote pro-business policies in the future.
Tillis agreed with VanderWoude, stating that the legislature has worked extremely hard to put money back into the hands of the people . “We even put a budget provision so that the first $50,000 of your income reported on your business income tax statement is exempt from North Carolina State taxes,” said Tillis. “All of those things were done to get the money back into the private sector,” he said.
Tillis added that the legislature intends to concentrate on eliminating unnecessary regulations in 2012. “I believe we are a mile wide on regulations and we are spending a lot of time on regulations that are not returning much value,” he said. Tillis affirmed that the legislature would take an in-depth look into some of the DENR regulations, which he thinks over-regulates businesses in some cases.
VanderWoude responded to Tillis’ remarks on regulations, stating that the Federal government’s top down, one-size-fits all approach to financial regulation is hurting local community banks. VanderWoude told Tillis that he made a trip to Washington, D.C. last year, endeavoring to oppose the recently enacted Dodd-Frank financial bill, but to no avail. The bill passed and became law in July of 2010 after a Party-line vote in Congress.
VanderWoude believes that the real estate restrictions imposed on all banks by Federal regulations following the housing debacle adversely impacts community banks. According to VanderWoude, by restricting banks to take on no more than 300 percent of equity in real estate loans, Washington is damaging the viability of local community banks across the nation, especially in the WNC region where real estate sales are critical to local economies. “That means somebody that wants to buy real estate or make an investment, they can’t get a loan,” said VanderWoude. “Everything is paralyzed,” he said.
Beverly Mason of Macon Bank pointed out that policy-makers in Raleigh and Washington, D.C. have no idea what is good for mountain development, reaffirming VanderWoude’s belief that government should be “as local as possible.” She said that every regulation placed on property, including steep slope regulations, burdens consumers and business leaders with more costs. Mason cited a local Board of Realtors study which estimated that a county steep slope ordinance would cost an additional $18,000 for some construction projects, hindering development that would otherwise begin sooner, according to Mason.
Tillis received more advice from Orville Coward Jr., a local attorney that specializes in real estate and business law, on the issue of steep slope regulations. Coward told Speaker Tillis that The North Carolina Geological Survey Maps should be tossed. Coward argued that even though counties are not required to adopt steep slope regulations, the existence of the DENR maps causes surveyors to note the maps when conducting their duties.
Furthermore, Coward believes the maps were created in a questionable fashion. “Because the state promulgated those maps and because those maps still exist on data banks, it has secondary ramifications and ripple effects throughout the economy,” said Coward. “One thing that would be so easy for the legislature to do is to say that those things were a mistake,” continued Coward. Speaker Tillis told Coward that he would do his homework and reevaluate the maps once the legislature goes back into session.
Economy and Unemployment Insurance
Commissioner Ron Haven expressed his discontent with the economy when the roundtable discussed incentives to spur job creation, stating that young people simply do not have the incentive or desire to take risks and make an investment to start their own business. “I would love to see something come into Franklin that would hire 500 people, but we know that’s not going to happen,” said Haven about spurring entrepreneurship in Macon County.
Speaker Tillis followed up Haven’s comments by offering his take on unemployment insurance, something Tillis thinks, in some cases, is a disincentive to creating jobs. “The constant struggle is to figure out how to make sure you have a safety net to people who have just been dealt a bad hand, and not continuing to stand back a little bit more and have government come in at the potential expense of creativity and innovation,” said Tillis.
“You get 99 weeks of unemployment now, and giving it to people who have literally stolen from their employer,” he said. Tillis went on to say that the unemployment insurance system needs restructuring, so that people who need it can get it, and people who are abusing the system will get energized and start searching for a job. Gov. Perdue issued an executive order that extended unemployment benefits to 37,000 North Carolinians in early June, after Tillis and other Republicans could not reach an agreement with the Governor over policy issues attached to bills that would have extended benefits to the 37,000 Tar Heels out of work. Both sides accused the other of playing political games with the unemployed.
The Speaker mentioned how the current environment of the country reminds him a lot of the stagflation era of 1979-1983, when consumer confidence was low, unemployment was high, and inflation was soaring. “We need to change our attitude and start pushing forward again,” he said in advocating for a mentality change among Americans.
The Speaker said that there is a lot of data to support efforts to reform the unemployment insurance system, saying that the number of people looking for work declines when policymakers extend unemployment insurance benefits. Julie Voorhees, Business Services Coordinator at SCC’s Macon Campus, said that North Carolina’s community colleges have seen some students abuse assistance funds, particularly the Pell Grant. “The Pell Grant used to be a gateway to get an education, but now education is being used as a gateway to get the Pell,” she said. “We see students who come in and have a Pell Grant, they don’t do well in classes, and they eventually go on probation and then they’re gone. It’s an unfortunate thing,” she said.
Drilling and Health-Care costs
Tillis spoke about off-shore drilling for oil and natural gas extractions after an attendee raised an issue regarding the State’s energy policy. Tillis said that they nearly passed a bill, The Energy Jobs Act, that would have allowed drilling for oil and natural gas to begin off the coast of North Carolina, but Gov. Perdue vetoed the measure.
The legislature was one vote shy of overcoming the Governor’s opposition. “If any of ya’ll have a relationship with Rep. Haire or Rep. Rapp who opposed it, we would definitely like to get them on board,” said Tillis on the Energy Jobs Act. “That will bring hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to the State and it is estimated to create five to ten thousand jobs,” stated Tillis. In discussing strategies to raise additional revenue for the State, Speaker Tillis said the legislature is looking into selling off unneeded State assets as well, which in the aggregate could bring in $2 billion, according to Tillis.
Phil Drake spoke out about rising health-care costs before the meeting concluded, asking Speaker Tillis if they could do anything in the public policy realm, like allow employers to buy insurance across state-lines, to contain health-insurance premiums. Drake said health-insurance costs are his biggest challenge right now. Drake, CEO of Drake Software, Inc., covers health-insurance for both employees and their families, including parttime employees. Drake stated that his health insurance costs are expected to increase by $800,000 next year.
“If Obamacare comes into full force, I will have to start providing fractional health-care benefits to part-time employees,” said Drake. “ I already have to cover children up to age 27, even if they are married and not living at home. “It’s getting absolutely impossible for me to continue to provide health insurance to employees,” he said. He went on to say that it cost him $250 a week to insure a family, and $6 an hour to hire a full-time employee, an insolvent amount according to Drake.
Tillis told Drake that health-care competition is something the legislature is “aggressively” pursuing. Blue Cross Blue Shield, a private health insurance company, has over 70 percent of the health-insurance market share in North Carolina. The Speaker noted the successful adoption of medical malpractice reform, but admitted that the State has its hands tied when it comes to initiating substantial health-insurance policy reforms. Tillis ended his response by telling the software developer that thwarting President Obama and Governor Perdue in 2012 would go a long way in helping employers cope with rising health-insurance costs.
Before the roundtable discussion closed, Commissioner Haven advised Speaker Tillis to avoid shifting the cost burden of road maintenance to towns and counties. Tillis addressed Haven’s concerns by emphasizing the fact that Governor Perdue’s budget proposed for a local government cost shift of $100 billion, which according to Tillis, would have inevitably forced counties and towns to increase taxes. Tillis ended the discussion by saying that they would not change how road allocations are funded unless there is a way to pay for it, dismissing rumors and hearsay about State lawmakers passing road construction costs down to counties and municipalities.
Upon concluding, Speaker Tillis told the roundtable that the media likes to portray the legislature as being extremely contentious. The truth is, according to the Speaker, is that bipartisanship is very much alive in Raleigh. Tillis explained that the legislature passed 421 bills in just 83 days. Despite Governor Perdue vetoing 15 bills, the GOP controlled legislature attracted enough Democratic support to override half of those vetoes. “We work pretty closely together. You get out in a lot of these areas, and it’s not really an ideological thing. A lot of it is just common-sense,” he said.