Speaker of the N.C. House meets with supporters, detractors in Marion

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MCDOWELL COUNTY, N.C. - On Friday, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis spent the day in Marion talking with local leaders, touring Baxter Healthcare and also listening to concerns from voters during a “town hall meeting” at McDowell Technical Community College.

He was also greeted by a small group of protesters who are angry about the Republican-led General Assembly and Tillis’ leadership.

Tillis, a Republican from Cornelius, talked with local officials about the status of county and municipal governments and business issues during a “local leaders roundtable” held at the Marion Depot at noon Friday. The event was hosted by state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, who is up for re-election this year.

The N.C. Association of County Commissioners and the N.C. League of Municipalities were involved with the roundtable event as well. After a luncheon, the speaker of the N.C. House fielded questions from the audience of county, city and education officials and business leaders about a variety of issues like funding for schools and 911 communication systems.

For example, Commissioner Michael Lavender asked Tillis for his opinion about a report which recommended the merger of several small community colleges with larger neighboring campuses. The efficiency report, released last year, listed McDowell Technical Community College as one of those small campuses that could be merged. Lavender is also the director of external relations for McDowell Tech.

Tillis quickly said he does not support that idea.

“I hate it,” he said. “I am a product of community colleges so I have a soft spot for them.”

Instead, Tillis said he would suggest more collaboration between the community colleges, like the universities do.

“You have nothing to worry about as long as I am in the pilot seat,” he said to Lavender.

Following his visit, Tillis, Gillespie and others took a tour of Baxter Healthcare in North Cove. He met with the management of the massive manufacturing that produces large-volume intravenous solutions and other related health care products. Baxter employs more than 2,000 workers at the plant, which covers 1.4 million square feet.

Tillis talked with Baxter representatives about regulatory reform, medical malpractice reform and other items that could affect their operation.

Tillis then held a “town hall meeting” in the auditorium of McDowell Tech. Shortly before his town hall event started, a group of approximately dozen people stood outside the main building at McDowell Tech holding signs saying such things as “Stop your war on teachers,” “Honk if you hate bigotry!” and “Stop dividing our state!”

The protesters were supported by the liberal organization Progress NC, which is very critical of Tillis and conservative Republican lawmakers. The organization contends that Tillis and other conservatives are targeting teachers and public education. Progress NC is also strongly opposed to passage of Amendment One, which would define marriage in the state as consisting of one man and one woman.

The town hall meeting began in the auditorium at around 5 p.m. Approximately 20 people showed up and some of them were critical of Tillis and other Republicans as well.

During his talk, Tillis answered questions about the state budget. Tillis said he’s met with community college presidents across North Carolina about the budget affects them. The state’s community colleges were cut 10 percent.

“I congratulate the community colleges for being good partners in getting through tough times,” he said. “At the end of the day, who’s going to pay? Government doesn’t make money. It takes money.”

Jack Keys with the McDowell Democratic Party said he’s upset about how the tax cuts by the General Assembly affected his grandson’s education.

“I am really ticked about it,” said Keys to Tillis. “I don’t understand why you Republicans are against education. Why you are against gays getting married, I mean who cares? Why you’re against women. You won’t let them have contraceptives but you’ll pay for Viagra. You guys all over this nation are against unions.”

Keys added they are only in favor of cutting taxes for the rich.

Tillis responded by saying he is not satisfied with the state of public education in North Carolina.

“I don’t believe in putting more money into the same process,” he said.

During the town hall meeting, Tillis was asked by Karen Edwards of Marion about his salary as speaker of the House. He said he earns $38,000 a year while other legislators, like Gillespie, earn $13,000 a year. They also receive $100 a day for expenses like lodging and food.

“These folks all work day jobs,” said Tillis.

Donna Edwards, her mother, asked Tillis why he is in the N.C. House when he has another job. He said he did this to “solve problems” in North Carolina.

“Have you been through McDowell County?” said Donna Edwards. “There are no jobs in this county!”

Tillis said to Donna Edwards that she should leave if she interrupted again. After a while, the Edwardses got up and left the auditorium.

“I had something else to say but he doesn’t let you speak,” said Karen Edwards to The McDowell News while standing in the front lobby.

On Monday, Donna Edwards said she later found out that Tillis gave his staff a 30 percent increase two years ago during the recession.