Raleigh, N.C. — Before the General Assembly reconvened Wednesday for its 2014 session, House Speaker Thom Tillis and members of the Republican caucus gathered to outline their legislative priorities for the short session.
Yet, an undercurrent of national politics ran through the half-hour news conference. Tillis a week ago captured the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan in November, and he referenced problems he saw in Washington, D.C., almost as much as issues that needed to be addressed in Raleigh.
"If I ran the North Carolina House the way (U.S. Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid runs the Senate, with all decisions made in his office, then I probably couldn't do this job," Tillis said, noting that he works with his caucus and House Democrats on a range of issues and to pass balanced budgets.
"That's the great thing about a chamber that functions versus a chamber that doesn't," he said. "Harry Reid hasn't passed (a budget) in three years. I don't need to take lessons in leadership from someone like that."
Ben Ray, a spokesman for Forward NC, which has been critical of Republican policies in the General Assembly, rebutted Tillis' comments, saying that Congress passed a budget last year amid the sequester.
"Democrats and Republicans alike supported the budget, which protected North Carolina's military from massive across-the-board cuts to defense and reduced the deficit by $23 billion," Ray said in an email.
The Senate campaign has raised North Carolina's national profile, and Tillis said he welcomes the scrutiny that comes with it.
"I want the national media to know about what we've done," he said.
Tillis called North Carolina's budget position "manageable," despite forecasts of a $400 million shortfall and ongoing Medicaid cost overruns and the push to provide raises for teachers and state employees.
"It's within the margins of what we anticipated," he said, citing the "responsible, sustainable budgets" the GOP-led legislature has passed the past three years.
He criticized the budgeting of the Democrats who controlled the General Assembly before 2011, saying their mismanagement left state coffers in disarray and damaged North Carolina's economy.
"They have failed teachers and state employees for a good number of years before we came into power," he said.
"Trends for budgeting are moving in the right direction," he continued. "If the federal government continues to fail to address the debt problem and regulatory crisis, that's a wild card that's out of our control."
Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, the chief budget writer in the House, was even more succinct: "Republicans know how to budget."
Regarding other priorities for the session, Tillis and others said they would work with the Senate on a plan to clean up leaky coal ash ponds across the state.
Rep. Julia Howard, R-Davie, said lawmakers also must work to craft a substitute for the film industry tax break that expires at the end of the year. Business interests have lobbied for an extension of the credit, saying film and television productions will abandon North Carolina without the incentive.
"What we have right now is not acceptable," Howard said.
Lawmakers also want to draw up new educational standards for North Carolina students so they could ditch the Common Core standards adopted by most states.
Tillis called Common Core an example of "federal overreach" and that state officials can work with teachers and parents to develop a better model.
"I'd like to see all of that work they're doing in Washington (at the U.S. Department of Education) kind of condensed so that more money can stay in the state and go back to the classroom," he said. "They're telling us how to teach our children, and then they put strings attached to make sure they have control."