House speaker visit draws 140

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 20, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — N.C. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis answered questions for local residents Tuesday about topics ranging from job creation to gay marriage.
About 140 people gathered in at Cooper’s, located at 122 E. Fisher St., for a legislative town hall meeting.
Tuesday’s meeting was one of several Tillis is holding across the state, and his communications director said it was the second largest of the eight he’s held so far. Tillis responded nearly two dozen questions.
A few speakers thanked Tillis for the work he and the Republican majority have done this session in the General Assembly, including balancing the budget without a sales tax increase and lowering regulations on businesses.
“I want to commend you for your legislature’s dedication to not shift the cost of programs over to municipalities and counties,” said James Furr, alderman with the Town of Landis.
Others questioned the GOP’s priorities regarding education funding, a voter identification bill and a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Nathan King, a pastor with Trinity United Church of Christ in Concord, said he is concerned about how the amendment would affect his job as a member of the clergy who performs marriages and civil unions.
“Help me understand how this doesn’t impose restrictions by the state on faith communities,” King said. “I think it blurs the line between church and state.”
Tillis emphasized that the measure would not change current law, and in fact it would make the law harder to change. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote of the legislature and a majority vote of the people.
Tillis said the matter is now in the hands of North Carolina voters until it appears on the May primary ballot.
“From your pulpit and the pulpits of those who agree with you, I think you need to discuss it and get people out to vote on this,” Tillis said.
Veleria Levy, chair of the Rowan County Democratic Party, asked why money was spent on a special session when it could have been used to save the jobs of teachers and teacher assistants.
Tillis said it costs about $30,000 to $40,000 a day to hold a legislative session, but he wanted to focus on reform and jobs bills before bringing up the emotional issue of gay marriage. He said he believes holding a special session actually saved time.
“Also, if you have specific examples of a lot of teachers and teacher assistants being laid off, let me know, because that means they’re not following our legislative intent,” Tillis said. “We made it clear they needed to make administrative cuts.”
Gold Hill resident Roice Fulton spoke as an alumnus of Governor’s School, a summer program for intellectually gifted students that could shut down after the state cut off funding.
He said he appreciates that the state is reconsidering its funding for teaching fellows and asked if other cuts would be revisited.
“Governor’s School is a $1.5 million program,” Fulton said. “Its alumni are leaders, thinkers and doers throughout the state… Would you consider re-funding that program?”
Tillis said legislators were focused on balancing the budget this year, but next year they plan to to look at low-cost programs that have “a lot of emotion around them” to see if they should be reinstated. He asked program supporters to make their case.
“I’m challenging people to tell us how those good feelings and experiences you’ve had have translated into positive benefits that are measurable,” Tillis said.
Emily Perry asked the speaker why he gave his staff a 25 percent pay increase earlier this year.
“Most of them make three times what I was making before I was laid off, along with hundreds of other state employees,” Perry said. “I was laid off along with hundreds of other state employees.”
Tillis responded that he underpaid his staff during a probationary period of three months before pulling them up to a competitive salary.
The speaker also took time during the meeting to talk about a bill that would open up new sources of alternate energy for the state.
He said North Carolina could collect natural gas offshore through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” That process extracts natural gas from underground rock layers using a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals.
Opponents say the wastewater, as well as the fracturing itself, could pose an environmental hazard.
Gov. Bev Perdue has vetoed the bill, but Tillis said the legislature is just one vote away from approving it. He said the state would study other places that allow the process and carefully learn from them.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.