Raleigh, N.C. — House Speaker Thom Tillis made an appearance Wednesday before the state’s chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a small-business advocacy group. Although he mentioned his U.S. Senate campaign only once, and obliquely at that, it was a clear subtext for many of his remarks.
The group awarded Tillis its highest honor, the "Guardian of Small Business" award, which state NFIB director Gregg Thompson said hadn't been awarded in nine years. Previous honorees included Congressman Howard Coble and U.S. Sens. Jesse Helms and Richard Burr.
NFIB actively supports candidates it endorses, although not in all races. Under state law, state lawmakers cannot accept donations from PACs during session for state campaigns. But they can accept contributions for federal campaigns, and Tillis has said he'll continue to raise money for his Senate bid during the session.
"I’m involved in [a campaign], by the way," Tillis joked toward the end of his appearance.
The Mecklenburg County Republican told the group the priorities for the short session – "and it will be a short short session" are the budget, which he expects the Senate will finish work on next week, the tax changes that passed the House Wednesday afternoon and regulatory reform, which is on the Senate floor Thursday.
"But not much else," he added. "We need to be disciplined."
Tillis touted the state’s employment recovery and changing tax and regulatory rankings as proof of his legislative success. He also downplayed criticisms that he’s cozy with big business, a charge frequently made in ads supporting his November opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
"When we’re criticized for regulatory reform, it’s said that we’re somehow helping big businesses, and that that’s the focus, it's quite contrary," he said.
"A large corporation in North Carolina has a department of regulatory affairs," with attorneys and lobbyists, he said, but small businesses don’t have those resources.
"When you’re a mom-and-pop shop," he said, "and you get that intimidating letter from some government regulatory agency, and you’ve got to deal with them for two or three days, four or five days, it’s debilitating to your business.
"People need to understand that’s why regulatory reform has such a dramatic positive effect on small businesses – far more than big businesses," he said. "We all want safe workplaces. We all want clean water. We all want clean air. But let’s do it in a responsible, cost-effective manner."
Tillis also defended last year’s tax reform bill against critics’ charges that it caused the $445 million shortfall in the current budget.
"What we have as a shortfall is completely manageable," he said. "We will be able to live up to our promise for teacher pay raises, state employee pay raises. It’s not about having to cut because of the shortfall. It’s just how much further we can go."
He declined to say whether he favors any candidate to replace him as House speaker next year, saying only that he’s "trying to lay the groundwork" for his successor, including an interim commission to study insurance mandate reform.
"I’m neither for all mandates nor against them," he said. "Let’s take a look at the economic benefit, and if we as legislators believe we accrue an economic benefit for that, then how do we hold the businesses harmless in the process of implementing that?"
He also said, in response to a question from the audience, that state lawmakers likely aren’t finished with an attempt to reform the privilege tax license imposed on businesses by some cities and counties.
Tillis said the privilege license tax is "inconsistent from city to city, inconsistent from county to county, and I don’t think a very fair way to derive revenue."
However, he added, "What we’re trying to do now is net out how much of a difference they have to deal with" and "see if there are any outliers where we need to help."