Tillis previews legislative session
by Anna Oakes
N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, a Republican from Charlotte, held a press conference Tuesday providing a preview of the upcoming General Assembly long session, which begins Wednesday in Raleigh.
Tillis opened with general statements about the legislative session and then fielded questions from members of the press. Following are highlights.
ON THE SESSION: Tillis said the General Assembly will begin consideration of legislation "quite quickly," with committees taking up as soon as this Thursday. He said he hopes to complete the 2013 session by the end of May or early June.
TAX REFORM: "We have to make progress on tax reform this year," Tillis said. The speaker said there are "good ideas" in the proposals being floated by Sen. Bob Rucho.
"We do need to reduce personal income tax, and we need to either substantially reduce or eliminate corporate income taxes," Tillis said. The legislature is likely to arrive at reform that seeks to broaden the tax base, he said, but must be careful not to create a consumption-based tax code as complex as the current system.
Tillis did not necessarily endorse one of the tax reform proposals, which is to increase the real estate transfer tax: "I think that could be problematic. We all know one of the key drivers for employment has been real estate, has been development," he said.
UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS: Tillis said the House will move forward with an unemployment insurance bill vetted by the Revenue Laws Study Committee that would reduce the duration of unemployment insurance benefits to 13 to 20 weeks (currently the duration is up to 26 weeks, depending on the state unemployment rate) and reduce the maximum weekly benefit amount from $535 to $350.
As currently written, the legislation would effectively eliminate North Carolina's ability to receive federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation to help those who have exhausted their state-provided unemployment benefits.
"Unemployment was never intended to be this long-term, almost a kind of entitlement program," Tillis said. "It was intended to be a bridge to help people as they go back to work."
EDUCATION: Tillis called for "meaningful education reform" in this year's session, stating he wants to create an environment "that encourages innovation and a lot more flexibility" in K-12 public schools -- the same flexibility already afforded to the state's charter schools.
With regard to higher education, Tillis said he wants to ensure that "what we're teaching our students are in line with the market demands." He said state universities should teach skill sets that are better in line with business demands and that results should be measured.
One press member asked Tillis if he believed in the importance of a liberal arts education, mentioning a comment by Gov. Pat McCrory on a radio show Tuesday that students who want to take gender studies should go to a private school. (McCrory said later in the interview that he believes in liberal arts education.)
"I obviously believe that a well-rounded education is a very important part of what we produce out of our university systems and community college systems. But at the end of the day, you have to get students aligned with the skills necessary to do the job," he said.
REGULATIONS: "We will move forward very aggressively with regulatory reform," Tillis said at the conference, adding that three subcommittees focused on various areas -- not just environmental regulations -- have been formed.
Tillis said the committees have been tasked with identifying regulations that are "out of step" with regional best practices, that exceed federal standards and that offer "no discernible benefit." He said the legislature will target a number of regulations this session with an effective repeal date some time in 2014, giving all stakeholders a year to convince lawmakers why they should or should not be repealed.
VOTER ID: Tillis said a voter ID bill requiring photo identification to be able to vote "will move fairly quickly." He said the bill will provide for access to a government-issued ID at no cost to citizens.
MARIJUANA: A press member asked Tillis if his administration would support a medical marijuana bill expected to be introduced this session, citing a recent Public Policy Polling survey finding 58 percent support for medical marijuana in North Carolina.
Tillis said there is "sensitivity" to the use of marijuana as a medical alternative but cautioned against laying the groundwork for widespread availability of marijuana, pointing to recent legalization in Washington and Colorado.
"I have no intention of allowing policies that would go that far," he said.