North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis stopped in Macon County last Friday for a roundtable discussion to listen to community leaders concerning tax reform, education policies, and economic growth in Western North Carolina.
Friday's visit marked the second time Tillis has visited Macon County. Tillis is also the first Speaker of the House to visit Macon County while in office. Roger West, the House of Representative for the 120th District introduced the speaker. “Thom worked his way up through the ranks and first got elected to Speaker in 2011 and led us through some pretty tough times in the House,” said West. “Thom worked well with a lot of the conservative Democrats and got a lot of legislation passed. I can't think of anyone better to lead the House.”
Tillis addressed the round table and explained that he values an open communication between elected officials and community members. He noted that he visits with as many groups as possible to take new information and ideas back to the House in order to best work on behalf of Western North Carolinians. “The reason I come out here is to get more people talking about what we should be focusing on and to get feedback on what you think is most important so that we can let that drive our legislative agenda,” said Tillis. “The things that I am really intent on making progress on is regulatory reform ... when I think about regulatory reform I think about the way the state regulates K-12 education, the way it regulates the counties, the way it regulates the towns, the way it regulates the community colleges, the way it regulates the university system; those are all things that we need to think about and decide if we are doing them as efficiently and as effectively as possible.”
Each member of the round table, which was comprised of both Democrats and Republicans, were given the opportunity to ask Speaker Tillis whatever questions they chose. County Manager Jack Horton started the question and answer segment off by asking of ways the legislation can help economic expansion in Western North Carolina. “Macon County has struggled, like so many other counties, with budgets and with methods of revenues. I think the county has been very fortunate to weather the recession as well as we have ... we are competing globally and with our neighboring states like South Carolina and Georgia for jobs. The problem in our state is that we are handicapped by not being able to use tools that they use to recruit and grow industries,” said Horton. “My question is, what do you think you or the state could do to help rural areas be more competitive?”
Tillis responded by saying that although tax reform is an important component of keeping of states competitive, he believes that the main focus should be on regulatory reform. “More than anything, we have to bring our regulatory burdens down,” said Tillis. “If you stack up the regulations that have come in over the past decade in all of our border states, they roughly equate to what we have done over that same time...one of the things I have asked is to go look at the other states and see what regulations we have on the books that they don't and see if we are getting any discernible benefits for them.”
Debbie Robb, secretary for the Macon County Republican Party, asked Speaker Tillis, other than regulatory reform, what plans did he have to help businesses grow. “Beyond regulatory reform, it is recognizing building strategies around the sections that we know will grow,” said Tillis. “It is no secret, anyone watching North Carolina the past few decades knows that we had a boom, we had a lot of building, we had a lot of commercial development and our economy became somewhat dependent on that work. The reason that we have higher than the national average for unemployment is that we had growth and economic development in the years preceding the economic downturn.”
Tillis noted that in addition to development, tourism stands as the second greatest opportunity for economic development and job growth in the state. “It is evident in the mountains, in the coast and in the piedmont region,” said Tillis. “Charlotte is one of the most visited tourist destination in North Carolina, so tourism is not just an east and west thing. This is a pervasive opportunity for our state.”
Macon County Board of Education member Gary Shields asked Tillis of his opinion on methods to take to ensure that North Carolina students are getting the best education possible.
According to Tillis, one way to ensure each student receives the best education possible is to give more control to local school districts. “I think one way to that is to giving principals and teachers more flexibility than they have had in the past couple of decades and giving superintendents more flexibility and accountability by being less prescriptive in terms of what Raleigh says you have to do, including some of the curriculum requirements,” said Tillis. “The other thing that we need to recognize is that the frustration and morale problem of the teachers didn't start two years ago ... year after year it was one more report, one more test, one more accountability, one less thing they could do in the classroom, that in their view were more likely to make them successful with their kids.”
Macon County School District's interim superintendent Jim Duncan asked Speaker Tillis what he thought could be done about the annual state mandated reversion that causes the burden to be shifted to local governments. “I came in in July and promptly reverted back to you approximately $1.06 million out of my budget that I didn't know I was going to have to do, so for us, it is not necessarily about getting us more money, but instead letting us keep the money that was ours to start with,” said Dr. Duncan. “If there was any way that that process could be lessened, it sure would help because when you have to propose your budget, then a month or two later you get a reversion, you have a month to figure out how to come up with the $1.06 million to send back. That costs us about 19 teaching positions that we had to pull out of our local funds to do that.”
Although the reversions have been a reccurring theme in the school district's budget, Speaker Tillis stated that the most recent reversion is directly attributed to making up for a shortfall caused by the elimination of the federal stimulus dollars. “This last reversion, as you probably know, in this last budget, was driven in large part by the fact that we had to make up about a $300 million hole for funding from the federal government that was built into the year-to-year operational budgets that didn't exist,” said Tillis. “Shame on leadership, including any Republicans in the future, that do that because that is a time bomb and that is why we had to deal with that.”