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Debt 'keeps me up at night,' Tillis says

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis speaks at the Chamber of Commerce. U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis speaks at the Chamber of Commerce.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis pulled no punches last week in a wide-ranging business roundtable that covered local, national and world issues — and, of course, President Trump.

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Tillis, a Republican who was elected to the Senate in 2014, told Henderson County Chamber of Commerce members that he started the two-week congressional recess with a trip to Buca Prison in Izmir, Turkey, on March 22 to meet with Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been imprisoned since Oct. 7, 2016, on terrorism and espionage charges.
Originally from Black Mountain, Brunson had been a pastor in Izmir for two decades when he was arrested. He is accused of having connections to the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen and his FETO network. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused Gulen of organizing the 2016 coup attempt. Erdoğan has suggested Brunson could be released if the U.S. extradites Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.
Tillis said he met with Brunson for 90 minutes and is hoping to get a transcript of the 62-page indictment against Brunson. He said Brunson’s health appears better, though he is confined 24 hours a day. Tillis said he would like to return to Turkey for Brunson’s trial on April 16.


On Trump: ‘Words matter’

Tillis then fielded questions on a variety of issues, including tax reform, the Russia investigation and President Trump, school security and health care.

The tax reform bill passed in December, Tillis said, was “the best you can do in the environment we live in in Washington…. (Tax reform) will do more to put upward pressure on wages than anything else through business decisions.” It will drive economic growth by putting “funds back into the private sector.” He applauded Trump’s rollback of rules to “responsibly regulate... with a lighter hand.”

But he also called out the president on the Russia investigation and his divisive rhetoric. Tillis and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) on March 27 issued a statement urging Trump to let special counsel Robert Mueller proceed “without impediment” with the Russia investigation because “it is not appropriate to remove Mueller. … I’m a RINO – a Republican in Need of Outcomes. I’m tired of extremes.”

Although Tillis and Coons introduced the bipartisan bill in January, it has gone nowhere in Congress.

“I think the interesting thing about the president is most people are looking at him and are pretty comfortable with what he does,” he said. “It’s what he says that they have a lack of comfort with … He was enormously helpful in getting support for the tax bill and the tax cuts. He has hired a few capable people. He has fired a few capable people. But he has generally brought in competent people that are driving different behaviors in the agencies.
“I support a lot of what the President does, not everything … But it’s what he says. And I honestly believe that words matter…. There’s an appropriate way to engage people, and I think that as the leader of the free world … he ought to be more mindful of the words. Think through what you’re saying and how people perceive it and how the next generation perceives it.”
What impact will Trump have on the midterm elections?
“Well, depends on what words and when,” Tillis said. “No one person is going to bring the country together. It’s going to take everybody focusing on the reality that we’re all a part of the problem. And not just Congress. I mean everybody.”


School safety: states know best


County manager Steve Wyatt asked about school security and what the federal government can do to help.
“What I worry about with the federal government trying to determine school safety in Henderson County schools … is that it is not going to work out well,” Tillis said. “A big government program that will have lots of paperwork … is not going to work out well.
“I would rather figure out what you can do to have states come up with the way they can secure school safety the best.” The federal government can “play a facilitating role but not build a Department of School Safety subdivision in the Department of Education.”


Health care


Melissa Maurer, owner of Blue Ribbon Custom Frame Shop, said she was able to survive the Great Recession “but not Obamacare. What are you going to do to help me?” she asked.
“In October you’re going to get a rate increase. We know it,” Tillis said. “Fortunately, through some of the tax cuts, some of the edge is taken off, but it’s also plowed back in to something that every year is going to go up unless we come up with a way to reduce the underlying cost and to figure out a sustainable way to get people into pools that make sense….
“What we did through reconciliation would not have fixed the problem, but it would have forced the issue of changing (health care funding) and forced the issue of bipartisanship. We missed that window of opportunity by one vote.
“We’re going to come back to it because it would be immoral to pretend that because we didn’t get it done last year that the problem is going to go away. And I’m not one who wants to wait until there’s a crisis when people will really get hurt. When we talk about providing care to those least among us, those who need the most help suffer the most when you wait for the crisis to occur. Because other people will naturally find resources. So they may have some way to weather it. But the people who are most vulnerable won’t. It’s a crisis that’s going to happen over the next eight to 10 years.”

Interest rates will ‘inch up a bit’


Another question addressed the Federal Reserve and its plan to hike interest rates. “(Federal Reserve chairman Jerome) Powell has made it clear that we’re going to inch up a little bit,” Tillis said. “The only interest rate you can count on is the one that’s been approved.”
Tillis said he expected the increases to come in increments. “There’s a genuine interest in trying to inch that up, as long as it doesn’t have an inflationary impact... I understand the problem and I think the Fed does too.”



Workforce development

How could the federal government help with workforce development? Referring to his “17-year odyssey to get a four-year degree,” Tillis said he was a “living example of that transition from community college to four-year” institution. “We have to figure out how to really facilitate and reward (this) possibly with some kind of grant program…. Have the federal government facilitate and maybe provide resources. Otherwise it’s lots of episodic work … and not systematic.”


National debt ‘keeps me up at night’


Tillis was asked about national security implications of the $21 trillion national debt and whether there is a plan to reduce it.
“What keeps me up at night (is) not Russia, not North Korea, not China, not Isis … It’s the national debt,” Tillis said. He noted the economic report produced by the Simpson-Bowles commission in December 2010, “The Moment of Truth.”
“It was an inflection point … our debt had grown so much as a percentage of our GDP that we were on the brink of financial collapse,” he said. “It was commissioned by President Obama. Nothing ever occurred with that report. The debt (then) was $12 trillion. Now it’s $21 trillion in a period of time where the GDP growth has not been substantial. If it was a moment of truth then maybe it’s become a moment of crisis now.”
Tillis recalled the economic crisis in North Carolina in 2011, when he was Speaker of the state House. The state found itself “in the worst fiscal situation since the Great Depression. We had to solve it and had to get the state on sound financial footing. We were roundly criticized for cutting. But nothing (bad) happened and North Carolina has done crazy well as a result. I’ve lived that in real terms here. I don’t know how we get people there” on the national level.
Tillis has asked his staff to read the Simpson-Bowles report and bring back the “best three to five ideas that we should move forward and tell me what the risk factors are. A lot of them are going to come back and say, ‘Boss, these are great ideas but it would be political suicide.’ And to that I would say I don’t care. What I want to do is to start communicating what’s necessary. If the worst-case scenario is me losing my job in 2020 and producing a result in the meantime, that’s a hell of a good scenario.”

‘Americans first, then immigration’


Tamela Albrecht, director of operations for Wilsonart in Fletcher, spoke about hiring challenges she faces, “not skill level but that they can pass a drug screen and show up at work. The employment rate is low but what are you doing to fix the welfare system to give people incentive to go to work?”
One way, Tillis said, would be to require random drug testing for welfare recipients. “If you’re a person (on unemployment) who fundamentally has a drug problem, you need to fix it.” He said drug testing has an “added complexity in states where you’ve legalized marijuana “because now you’re saying you failed a drug test but it’s a legal drug. The first part of that statement is right. The second part is irrelevant.
“But you’re still not going to have enough workers, which gets into the issue of immigration reform. There are not enough specialized skills, not enough workers to harvest Christmas trees in this area, for seafood processing, (to meet) peak need in a tourism area for hospitality and lodging.” Even by employing Americans first, he said, “we need to recognize that you’re still not going to have enough workers.”
The country needs a “rational, sustainable, beneficial immigration and guest worker programs and legal immigration. And the President understands this. But we’ve got to work on that.”