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Airport Authority Bill Moves Forward

A bill to place the Charlotte Airport under control of a regional authority surmounted a major hurdle Tuesday afternoon - state senators voted 33 to 16 in its favor. WFAE's Julie Rose spoke with All Things Considered Host Mark Rumsey about the progress of the measure.

RUMSEY: Julie, this bill is moving fairly quickly – despite pleas from Charlotte's mayor, city council and even Governor McCrory himself to slow down. What's driving this?

ROSE: You're right the city, especially, has been really pushing hard to get the bill delayed until they can complete a full study of the possible effects it might have. They're going to spend as much as $150,000 in the next two months having a study done. But the bill's sponsor – Mecklenburg Senator Bob Rucho is pretty adamant no further study is necessary and today he seemed to allay the concerns most of his colleagues had.

RUMSEY: What about the more than $800 million in outstanding bonds the Charlotte airport has – which were issued under the city's name? I understood the city to be really concerned about the status of those bonds if the airport were stripped from city control.

ROSE: They city's bond counsel at Parker Poe here in Charlotte says transferring those bonds to a regional authority would be complicated and expensive, at best . . and could potentially hurt the city's ability to borrow money down the line if lenders think the General Assembly can up and seize the city's assets at any time.

Those concerns were enough to stall the bill for about two weeks, but last night, supporters of the airport authority idea got their own outside view from a bond counsel firm in Louisiana. And it says just the opposite – that this kind of transfer of authority happens all the time and would be fairly simple and have no real effect on the bondholders.

That seemed to appease the majority of the Senate today.

RUMSEY: Are we learning anything more about who's driving all of this? 

ROSE: Senator Rucho has refused to name anyone specifically, but mentions there's a community of folks in the region worried about the future of the airport. Jerry Orr – the aviation director – used to talk openly about the advantages of a regional authority. But his bosses over at city hall have muzzled him.  Today we learned of another supporter . . . Stan Campbell.  He's a longtime Republican political operative in Charlotte – was on the city council for eight years (and) chair of the Airport Advisory Committee. He's well-connected and capable of getting a ball like this moving.  But he hasn't been visible on this issue until the name of his nonprofit "Alliance for a Better Charlotte" popped up as the group that requested the bond counsel memo from the firm in Louisiana. 

RUMSEY: And what's his motivation for wanting the airport out of the city's control?

ROSE: He just plain doesn't trust the current mayor and council to do right by the airport.

CAMPBELL: "Every mayor up to now has been smart enough to keep their meddling out of the airport. And why, when it's working so superbly does the mayor and city council think their wisdom - which hadn't been too great in other areas either - is needed at the airport?"

RUMSEY: What does he mean by meddling?

ROSE: Well, for decades really, the city council has been hands-off and let Orr do what he does over there. But in the last year there have been a few instances where the city council and city manager have intervened and overruled Orr.

The most prominent was the decision last year to put CMPD in charge of all security at the airport. That change was prompted partly by the incident where the young man – Delvonte Tisdale – snuck into the wheel well of a plane in Charlotte and was found dead along the flight path in Boston.  Having CMPD in charge has added a few million dollars to the cost of airport security and Jerry Orr called the whole transition "a debacle" in one internal email.  

That's an instance of the city exerting it's authority against Orr's will.

RUMSEY: So all of this is about a power struggle? 

ROSE: On some level, I think so. Senator Martin Nesbitt does too, based on his comments today. He said Jerry Orr thinks he's a "benevolent dictator."

NESBITT: "He gets mad because somebody tells him to do something - and I understand he's around 70 years old and fixing to retire, and the next guy might wish the City of Charlotte was around to help him a little bit – but because one guy decides he's bigger than everybody there, he goes and gets him a posse and they get legislation and off we go."

ROSE: The other thing driving all of this is the fear – I've heard it from Senator Rucho and Stan Campbell, among others – that the city is looking to plunder the airport's coffers. Federal law prohibits airport funds from being used for anything other than airport operations. But cities around the country have found some wiggle room in that.

In San Francisco, they used airport funds to build part of a transit line to the airport.  A Pennsylvania court found it was legal to tax people who park at the airport and use the money for other city operations. We already have a version of that in Charlotte where the tax the city charges people who rent cars – most of which happens at the airport – and uses the money for tourism projects.

So, I guess like most conflicts, this seems to have its roots in money and power.

RUMSEY: But it's not a done deal, right?

ROSE: No, the bill needs a third vote in the Senate – typically a formality when the first vote clears easily. Then it'll be up to the State House.

RUMSEY: Okay, thanks Julie.