RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Government efficiencies and repairing North Carolina's unemployment insurance system — not spending more taxpayer dollars — will free up money to ensure vulnerable citizens are cared for and businesses create more jobs, House Speaker Thom Tillis said Tuesday.
Speaking on the eve of this year's General Assembly session, Tillis discussed at a news conference his chamber's agenda, which sounds very similar to what Senate Republicans want with slight differences.
Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said House Republicans want public education changes that will give more flexibility to schools to teach students, as well as to reduce needless regulations for businesses and citizens and succeed on a tax overhaul.
"We have to make progress on tax reform this year," Tillis said, adding he wants to eliminate corporate income taxes and reduce individual income tax rates. He is worried that an effort to eliminate individual income taxes quickly could be tough for the state to absorb.
Tillis said the House also would move ahead on legislation that would hasten the repayment of nearly $2.6 billion the state owes the federal government. The proposal includes both higher taxes for business and potential cuts in maximum weekly state jobless benefits by about one-third.
Legislation expected to go before the chamber's finance committee Thursday would start the changes July 1. That date would mean federal emergency extended benefits would end for an estimated 80,000 long-term jobless workers six months early because the "fiscal cliff" law approved by Congress in early January doesn't allow states to modify benefit levels through the end of 2013.
Tillis said unemployment benefits were never intended as a near "entitlement program" but as "a bridge to help people as they go back to work." He said creating a solution that accelerates the debt payoff by three years and brings benefits in line with other Southeastern states would free up businesses to hire more.
"If we do this, we're going to create more jobs for the folks that are receiving benefits and who deserve the help now but can get them back into a much higher paying and much more productive job than they could ever imagine," the speaker said.
Kevin Rogers, policy director for Action NC which opposes the jobless benefits plan, said cutting benefits in no way assists those seeking employment. "While we are certainly in favor of finding efficiencies in any and all government agencies, these savings cannot be relied upon to provide the core of programmatic benefits," Rogers wrote by email.
Tillis said he doesn't believe his party will be labeled as out of touch or uncaring toward struggling citizens as unemployment remains above 9 percent.
"I believe past administrations have been out of touch," Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told reporters, pointing out what he called wasteful spending before Republicans took control of the legislature. "We need to look at a different way of freeing up dollars that are inefficient ... wasteful and figure out a way to provide that money and provide those resources back in to people with dire needs that need our help."
New GOP Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican legislative leaders also will decide this year whether to expand Medicaid to cover more of the uninsured, as the federal Affordable Care Act allows. The federal government would pay for nearly all the expense for the additional coverage, but Tillis said taxpayers are still footing the bill.
Tillis also said there will be a House bill that requires photo identification to vote in person but would allow easy access to government-issued identification at no cost to citizens. Senate Republicans and McCrory also want a voter ID law, which also would have to be cleared by federal judges or attorneys. Previous Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue vetoed a photo ID bill in 2011.
He also spoke about gun violence, saying he doesn't like the idea of arming teachers as a solution to preventing gun violence in public schools. He does want input from law enforcement to say how schools can be better secured, and he hopes to pass with the Senate a two-year state government budget by early June and adjourn the session around the same time.