Tillis on education cuts, statewide redistricting during town hall

by Keith Barber

NC Speaker of the House Thom Tillis held a town-hall meeting at High Point City Hall on Dec. 15. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

Thom Tillis, the NC Speaker of the House, said the new Republican majority in the NC General Assembly had to make some tough decisions during the 2011 legislative sessions, but he felt certain “most of those decisions were the right ones.” Tillis, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, made his comments during a town-hall meeting at High Point City Hall on Dec. 15.

Tillis touted several pieces of legislation passed by the Republican majority, including new laws addressing medical malpractice reform, tort reform, regulatory reform, annexation reform, and workers compensation reform as some of his proudest moments of his third term in office. Tillis said the legislature offered North Carolina citizens tax relief in the form of $1.2 billion in cuts to sales taxes and $300 million in cuts to income tax surcharges.

“We cut $1.5 billion in taxes and we cut over $1 billion in spending and we did present a balanced budget sooner than it’s been presented since 1973,” Tillis said.

In June, Gov. Beverly made history, becoming the first North Carolina governor to veto a budget passed by the NC General Assembly. Perdue vetoed the $19.7 billion state budget plan passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, stating that lawmakers had turned their backs on the state’s children while placing in jeopardy North Carolina’s investments in education and future economic prospects.

Perdue chastised state legislature for not extending the 1-cent sales tax that was already in place — a measure that could have provided the state with more than $1 billion in revenue to help close the budget gap.

Tillis responded to Perdue’s criticism about the legislature’s reluctance to extend the 1-cent sales tax during the town-hall meeting. He confirmed that if the legislature had continued the 1-cent sales tax, it would have more than covered the budget deficit.

“And if I had increased [sales tax] by 10 cents, we would have $10 billion to spend,” Tillis said. “The point being that we didn’t think it was necessary. We’re not in this mode to where we’re trying to find $800 million or $1.27 billion. Could we potentially find $300 million or a half a billion dollars and plow that back [into education]. Yeah, I think that’s true.”

Tillis addressed the funding of education during the town-hall meeting. Tillis said he sees waste and too much control given to school systems as major stumbling blocks to education reform. Tillis said that the proportion of money the state spends on early childhood education is simply not enough, and he wants to give school systems more flexibility to earmark more of their funds for education from kindergarten through the third grade. Tillis said simply spending more money on education is not the answer to addressing the concerns of early childhood education advocates.

“You don’t have to have a bigger pie to get a bigger slice,” he said.

Tillis addressed an ongoing campaign by Progress NC to protest the elimination of 1,800 teachers and teachers assistant positions, as well as the 4,300 classroom positions, due to the more than $350 million cut in the state’s education budget. Tillis said state legislators will take a hard look at school systems that cut teacher positions and will hold them accountable. “If your school system that cut classroom teaching posi- tions and your administrative numbers remain the same or were up a little bit and they’re above the average, there’s going to need to be some explaining there, when you had a legislature that said, ‘Place a priority on funding teachers in the classroom.’” Gerrick Brenner, executive director of Progress NC, rebutted Tillis’s comments and excoriated the speaker and state Republicans for passing a budget that cuts classroom positions.

“The facts are, [state Republicans] said they were going to fully fund every teaching position, that they were protecting the classroom,” Brenner said. “What they don’t like to go to town halls and remind people of is they made the school districts give back $429 million of what they call reversion money. They basically pulled the money back and passed the buck on who’s to blame for the cuts.” Brenner and Justin Guillory, communications director for Progress NC, stood before a display of 1,800 “pink

slips” — one for every classroom teacher and teaching as- sistant laid off by this year’s state budget — outside High Point City Hall during the town-hall meeting. Brenner said Tillis has been inconsistent during previous town-hall meetings when he’s defended the legislature’s decision to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s education budget.

“When superintendents are in the room, he says things like, ‘Maybe we can sell a hospital and a railroad and state assets to pay for schools,’” Brenner said. “When superintendents are not in the room, he has suggested that superintendents are to blame for the cuts. He has said in past town hall meetings that he’s going to call superintendents to Raleigh to unpeel this knot, get to the bottom of this, but you know what? It never seems to happen.”

Tillis touted the NC General Assembly’s receiving pre- clearance from the US Department of Justice on its state- wide and congressional redistricting maps as another major achievement of the 2011 legislative session. “A confirmation by the Department of Justice that our plans conform to the Voting Rights Act [of 1965] — that pre- clearance occurred sooner than any pre-clearance since the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965 — so I’m very proud of that,” Tillis said.