Tillis talks about jobs, education, road money
It could be six months before the job market reflects changes made this year by the North Carolina General Assembly. That was the assessment by North Carolina Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, as he sat down with Union County Weekly Friday, Sept. 30, before a town hall meeting of an estimated 45 people at Cuthbertson High School.
This year, the General Assembly made changes to tort and workers’ compensation laws, as well as eliminating the one penny sales tax Union County school administrators and some parents had advocated to keep, in the name of stimulating the economy. The General Assembly also held a special session in September to look at constitutional amendments, one of which, the defense of marriage act, passed and will now go to voters on the ballot in May.
The unemployment figure however remained the same since the General Assembly wrapped up their session. In May, the figure moved from 9.6 percent to 9.7 percent unemployment, before climbing to 10.4 percent in June, where it currently remains.
“The budget just went into effect July 1,” Tillis said. “A lot of what businesses do is look four, six months down the road and make decisions. We’re dealing with business decisions made six months to a year ago. Hopefully, we created a framework that puts us in a better position moving forward.”
Tillis said he heard from business owners how much the changes would help them stay in operation next year. Under the new guidelines, the first $50,000 of active income is exempt for small business owners on their personal taxes. He estimated that 400,000 business owners would benefit from the change.
“We’re trying to lay the groundwork so North Carolina can outperform other states,” Tillis said. “At the same time, we’ve got to be realistic.”
As long as the national unemployment rate stays high, Tillis said, the changes made by the General Assembly will basically help North Carolina stay afloat and be better prepared to come out of the recession.
“Small business really is the job creator in this state,” Tillis said. “We felt to give tax relief to job creators was a good start.”
School districts and some Union County parents have protested the General Assembly’s decision to let a temporary one cent sales tax expire, rather than extend it one more year. In Union County, district officials argued over the summer their portion of that sales tax would help plug multiple funding holes, which resulted in eliminating 57 interim teachers and 46 teacher assistant positions. The eliminations didn’t count as impacting the classroom, according to state rules, as they were interim jobs to begin with.
Federal stimulus money helped Union County keep an estimated 155 teachers this year, but that was a one time band-aid. School officials already anticipate a $13.5 million cut in funding for next year, which helped generate support for keeping the penny tax.
“Some people say it’s just a penny, why keep it in,” Tillis said. “But almost 40 percent of that sales tax comes from business. We felt strongly we needed to cut back.”
When asked about continued funding for public schools, Tillis said the state may have to look at other options, moving forward. He pointed to the fact lawmakers are examining several state assets that could be sold, in order to generate more revenue for school districts and other issues.
“We own a hospital valued at $1.2 billion, we’re looking at (if) we should be in that business,” Tillis said. “We’re the only state that owns a railroad. Other states seem to do fine without one. We also own 52 acres of real estate we’re not using.”
The right time to move forward?
Opponents of the Republican led legislature have criticized Tillis for moving forward with three special sessions of the General Assembly, at a time when the state is looking everywhere to save money. The first was held in July, to adopt the new redistricting plans, the second in September and the third will take place in November. Included in the September session was a failed vote to establish term limits and a successful one to let residents decide if North Carolina will define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Lawmakers passed the bill, which now goes to residents at the ballot box next year. The reason these bills were kept for a special session, Tillis said, is because he didn’t want them to impact budget talks earlier in the year.
“In my view, if we had brought some of these controversial bills in May or June, we wouldn’t have passed the budget we did,” Tillis said. “There would have been too many distractions.”
Several Republicans had approached him in May, Tillis said, to place the bills on the calender for a vote. He delayed the vote for a special session to force lawmakers to focus on the budget.