Tillis again returned to Papertown on Aug. 23, hosting a brief but wide-ranging town hall and taking questions from elected officials and municipal administrators on everything from the future of the paper mill to cannabis legalization.
Working hard on the ground
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers welcomed Tillis to BearWaters Brewing, expressing his appreciation for Tillis’ continuing support.
“Yes, he’s my senator but he’s also a friend, because at the end of the day, this is and always will be about doing the best for our respective homes and the state,” Smathers said while introducing Tillis to a crowd of about 40 local officials that included representatives from Haywood County government, several municipal governments and the Southwestern Commission.
Tillis said he couldn’t believe he was standing in BearWaters just then, after flooding gutted the building only two years ago.
“It’s great to see the resilience. It’s, I think, a great symbol for the future of Canton. I think it’s a great symbol for the future of this region,” he said. “What we’ve got to do is not just show up a day or two after the storm, but keep showing up until we’re fully recovered.”
Canton’s path to recovery became all the more difficult after its largest employer pulled out this past June, but both Tillis and Smathers looked to the town’s future.
“We’re going to do what we can to weigh in on what happens with the paper mill and what happens with the future of Canton,” Tillis said. “Tell us what we can we do. You’re working hard on the ground. What we can do is clear any sort of traps that may be up in Washington that are [related to] resources that are necessary to look ahead. Canton’s got a great history. But now we’ve got to talk about a future that you’re going to be proud of. It’s a pivotal time, and we’ll be here. And we’ll be back as long as it takes to make sure that you all are on sound footing.”
When Pactiv Evergreen first announced it would close its Canton paper mill back in March, company officials cited the state of the paper market as the primary reason. Byron Racki, at the time president of Pactiv’s beverage merchandising division, said it had “gone to hell.” Daniel Flippo, director of the United Steelworkers southeastern region, said that while the market hadn’t gone quite that far, it had been drastically reduced.
Tillis was asked by The Smoky Mountain News if he was aware of changes in any foreign trade policies under the administrations of former President Donald Trump or current President Joe Biden that would support Pactiv’s claim about the dismal state of the paper market as the reason Pactiv packed up and left.
“I could imagine it was a factor, but not the dominant factor. There have to be other reasons,” he said. “I just I don’t believe it.”
Tillis explained that he’s been aware of unfair trade practices on the part of China, including dumping excess textiles onto the market to drive down cost and put competitors out of business, but didn’t specifically mention paper. He has proposed legislation that would crack down on China’s market manipulation, but again downplayed Pactiv’s assertion.
“It would shock me if [Pactiv] Evergreen could cite that as the primary factor for the closing,” he said. “There had to be other issues involved.”
The bell has rung
Haywood County Sheriff Bill Wilke, who’s made a strong anti-drug push since being elected last fall, asked Tillis an important question about the conflict between states and the federal government.
“I’m curious to know what your thoughts are on the way forward in terms of the legalization of marijuana,” Wilke said, adding that he’d seen studies linking early use of high-potency strains of cannabis have a link to schizophrenia.
As of Aug. 1, 23 states plus Washington, D.C. have implemented legalized recreational cannabis, while 40 states plus D.C. have approved some form of medicinal cannabis. North Carolina is one of the few states that have legalized neither, and the plant remains federally classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
The federal stance prevents legal cannabis businesses from accessing the nation’s banking system and is sometimes used as a reason for states to continue prohibition. But it also prevents the federal government from stepping in and regulating the industry.
“I think, you know, the bell has rung when you have red states and blue states [legalizing cannabis],” Tillis said. “I for one think that we should look at it like tobacco. We should regulate the crops, the FDA should have a role to play in terms of potency, ingredients, delivery methods, we should have a federal excise tax on it and we should have serious consequences, like the tobacco industry, if you run out of line.”
Tillis said he was concerned about the behavioral health aspects of legalization, and also that the race for potency through genetic engineering would one day reach its limit, perhaps leading producers to introduce other ingredients to differentiate their products from their competitors.
A red flag
Another drug-related question came to Tillis, asking for his take on the opioid crisis in light of claims that although the federal government continues to dump money into the problem, it’s not gone away and despite best efforts, 54% of people struggling with mental health or substance abuse are going unserved.
Tillis said he’d taken some heat for sponsoring the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act with fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.
Passed in 2022, the legislation supports creating mental health service programs in schools and assists state governments in expanding behavioral health clinics as well as providing telehealth services under both Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“It’s the single largest investment by the federal government in behavioral health,” Tillis said. “And I’ll tell you why law enforcement should like that bill, because of the five states that implemented it back in 2017, a couple of those states had 50% reduction in mental health admissions to hospitals.”
The bill also contained some gun control provisions that didn’t exactly please Second Amendment advocates, including the NRA.
“A lot of people on my side of the aisle call it a ‘red flag’ bill. It wasn’t a red flag bill,” Tillis said. “Matter of fact, it does the opposite of a red flag bill.”
Red flag laws allow law enforcement agencies to confiscate firearms temporarily from people who may be a danger to themselves or others. Some have voiced due process concerns in red flag proceedings, and Tillis said the law specifies that if states violate due process, they’re “not going to get a dime in federal dollars.”
But the legislation did expand background checks for firearms purchases and allows grant funds to be used by states for crisis intervention programs, like red flag laws. It also prescribes strict compliance with due process for those red flag hearings.
Tillis served in the North Carolina General Assembly before winning his first Senate bid in 2014 and a second in 2020.