RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — House Speaker Thom Tillis says he won't veer from the conservative policies he championed before winning the Republican primary for U.S. Senate last week as he leads the chamber for the final year.
Tillis won last week's primary over seven other rivals and will likely get extra attention during the two-month General Assembly session that begins Wednesday as he prepares for the November general election. How he manages the session will be brought under the microscope from political friends and foes.
"Everybody will be asking about it, and everybody will be talking about it," Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, senior co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a Tillis ally, said this week.
Tillis, a Charlotte-area business consultant, said his policy agenda has contributed to lower unemployment and more money in the pockets of nearly all taxpayers.
"We are here to heal the economy ... whether I'm running for the Senate or running for the legislature," Tillis told The Associated Press. "I'm looking forward to getting back to work and looking forward to getting the members back together."
Tillis announced in May 2013 he was seeking the U.S. Senate nomination. It's rare for the top lawmaker in a chamber to run simultaneously for another important statewide office. In 1976, Speaker Jimmy Green ran for lieutenant governor — then the Senate's most powerful job — while then-Lt. Gov. Jim Hunt ran for governor. Both won.
Tillis took credit for tax rate and regulatory reductions approved by the Republican-led legislature last summer, as well as new abortion rules favored by social conservatives. But he also was pummeled with criticism from Democrats and other liberal-leaning groups for those same laws.
"I would hope that Speaker Tillis would not use this as an opportunity to campaign and curry favor with supporters and other folks," said House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham.
Although Tillis is not seeking another term in the House, being speaker gives him a platform that he can use to repair policy weaknesses or other missteps ahead of the general election against Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan.
Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and GOP Gov. Pat McCrory all have said they want to pass an across-the-board pay raise for teachers for the coming year after failing to give them one last year. A Democratic group working to re-elect Hagan and others this fall says voters shouldn't be fooled by Tillis' legislative agenda this year.
"This is going to be about putting a moderate-looking Band-Aid on the sort of damaging agenda they ran through last year," said Democratic Party spokesman Ben Ray.
Tillis will have to tread carefully on how to handle bills from more conservative House members or the Senate. He'll also have to make fundraising decisions that don't lead to new allegations of influence-peddling by critics.
Starting Wednesday, Tillis and other state legislators are barred from receiving donations from lobbyists doing business at the Legislative Building or from organizations who have hired lobbyists. But Tillis can raise money lawfully from these avenues for his federal campaign coffers.
Tillis' campaign benefited from a luncheon last June organized in part by a consumer finance company executive several days after the legislature sent to McCrory a law that allowed some lenders to charge higher interest rates on installment loans. Tillis' campaign has rejected repeatedly any link between donations and specific legislation.
"We do not have fundraising plans targeting interests before the General Assembly during the short session," Tillis campaign spokesman Jordan Shaw said Tuesday, adding he anticipated a similar approach as Hagan, who was a state senator when she ran for U.S. Senate in 2008.
McCrory said this week he doesn't anticipate any significant changes from Tillis. He said he received a good sign last week when Tillis asked when they could resume their weekly working breakfasts from last year.
"I think it's more than just him liking the hot sauce on his scrambled eggs," McCrory quipped, adding, "I think he's made a total commitment to the state, while also being a candidate to move to D.C."