In a nine-month span, House Speaker Thom Tillis traveled the state attending town hall forums with an entourage fit for a presidential candidate.
His security detail for the 31 forums included two legislative sergeants-at-arms, two General Assembly Special Police officers and numerous local law enforcement agents, all tasked with protection and crowd control.
The speaker specifically requested the sergeants-at-arms and General Assembly police to accompany him under a little-noticed state law approved in the 2011 legislative session. The bill crafted and pushed by Tillis then-Chief of Staff Charles Thomas gave the legislative officers broader statewide police powers, putting their status closer to State Bureau of Investigation agents and N.C. Highway Patrol troopers.
At the time, Democratic state senators questioned the expense of the expanded jurisdiction, given other state budget cuts. Thomas assured them the cost was negligible.
But a (Raleigh) News & Observer analysis of legislative expense records indicates that taxpayers paid more than $15,000 to provide security for Tillis and other lawmakers at the town halls, which Tillis initiated last summer. The whole tour cost the state about $21,000.
The expenses incurred by local authorities was unavailable.
Even with the state pinching pennies, Tillis said the town halls from August to April were worth the cost.
I think when you consider that we were able to reach out to over 3,000 people and go where they are instead of forcing them to go to Raleigh, it was one of the best investments we made in the last year and a half, Tillis said.
Tillis also defended his security request, saying most of the town halls attracted protesters.
I think anytime you have protests you always have the risk of one person there, he said. Most of them, I believe, are all peaceful ... (but) I have an obligation to protect the citizens, the staff and other members.
Senate leader Phil Berger does not use security when he travels, said Amy Auth, the Republicans deputy chief of staff.
And when Democratic lawmakers took their message on the road for a weeklong tour in September, they didnt request security and didnt charge state taxpayers for the expense, said state Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat.
The Democrats who went on the trip said security was unnecessary because lawmakers travel the state all the time without police protection. The lawmakers said they paid their own way or used campaign money because the trip was partly political.
Former House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Democrat, said he never conducted a tour like Tillis when he led the House. At times, Hackney said he asked his sergeant-at-arms to attend official meetings outside the legislative building but didnt include additional security.
Gerrick Brenner, the executive director for Progress North Carolina, a liberal advocacy group that followed Tillis on his tour, said the speakers safety concerns regarding protesters were ludicrous.
At the start of the tour, Brenner said his groups protest equaled two staffers standing next to poster boards with pink sticky notes representing the jobs cut in the Republican budget. And even after the charged atmosphere from Tillis surprise midnight special session in January, Brenner said his group remained peaceful.
We were adamant we were not going to disrupt the town halls, he said.
General Assembly police and sergeant-at-arms officials reported no confrontations and no arrests on the town hall tour.
Staff writers J. Andrew Curliss and Rosella Age contributed.