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House Tentatively Passes Airport Bill

Ken Lund

RALEIGH The N.C. House on Thursday tentatively passed a bill to create a new airport authority by Jan. 1, a move one Charlotte City Council member called “stealing our airport.”

The Republican-backed bill passed 72-42 along party lines, despite Democratic appeals to slow down.

Final House passage is expected Monday. The Senate could approve it as early as Tuesday. As a so-called local bill, it would then become law without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

“We have done the best we can to make sure Charlotte Douglas International Airport … remains successful,” Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and co-sponsor of the bill, told the House.

But Charlotte City Council member Warren Cooksey, a Republican, called it “a sad day for Charlotte, a sad day for North Carolina.”

Democratic council member Michael Barnes said, “It’s disappointing to me that they chose to go down this road of stealing our airport.”

The bill, introduced five months ago, would transfer airport control from the city to an independent authority by Jan. 1. North Carolina’s other large airports are already run by authorities.

House Democrats tried to slow the bill if not stop it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about a $3. 5 billion-plus enterprise,” said Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte. “And we’re talking about (going) ‘Wham, you’re a regional authority in six months’.”

Democrats cited polls showing an authority is unpopular in Charlotte.

An Observer poll in May found that, by a 3-1 margin, Charlotte voters want the city to keep control over the airport. Another poll of Charlotte voters found only 16 percent supported an airport authority.

“The citizens of Mecklenburg (County) are not in favor of this bill,” said Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander of Charlotte.

House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham asked why legislators were getting involved.

“Why did we decide to be Big Brother and say, ‘We’re going to take your airport … and decide that we now know how to do it better’?”

Study abandoned

After being dormant for weeks, the bill picked up speed this week after council members rejected a legislative offer to join legislators in a study commission to look at airport governance.

“They turned us down, so we are kind of stuck with this desire to work with the city to make the best transition,” Samuelson said. “They are not willing to participate.”

Cooksey said he may have been the only council member willing to join a legislative study.

He said Thursday’s vote “demonstrates that the offer of a study commission was insincere, because it’s clear it’s not something they want to study, it’s something they want to do.

“This action demonstrates I was wrong. The decision (to create an authority) was made months ago and they were going to do it regardless of what the facts are.”

The House bill would create an 11-member authority. Unlike earlier versions, it would no longer have appointments by the governor and legislative leaders.

Instead, the mayor and City Council would each have two appointments, half of whom would have to live on the westside. Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties – Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln and Union – would each have one appointment. Their terms would begin Oct. 1.

Those 10 members would appoint the 11th by Dec. 1.

Bill specifications

The bill specifies that the person who was the city’s aviation director on Feb. 14 would be the authority’s first executive director. That is Jerry Orr.

The bill also calls for the authority to pay the city unspecified compensation for “unreimbursed or unrecovered cost to the city of acquiring the airport property” not paid with airport revenues or federal money.

Alexander suggested that compensation could amount to the total multi-billion value of the airport. In which case, he argued, an authority might have to lean on state taxpayers for money to pay it.

“So a vote for this measure,” he said, “is a vote ultimately to increase the taxes of the citizens of North Carolina for a dubious change in governance.”

The bill also would allow for airport revenue – much of which is paid by US Airways – to be used to “expand, maintain or operate” airports in Iredell, Gaston, Lincoln, Cabarrus and Union counties with the consent of officials in those counties. That opens the door to spending Charlotte airport money on other airports.

Supporters of the bill say the language is actually more restrictive than earlier versions and not unlike current “inter-local” agreements between governments. Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who sponsored the Senate version, called the criticism a “smokescreen.”

Samuelson said lawmakers may change the language before giving final approval next week.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said the issue about using Charlotte Douglas airport revenues for regional airports illustrates what he said is an unintended consequence of the bill.

“Our question is, what are the other unintended consequences?” Carlee said. “The haste with which they have done this confirms the fears the council has.”

When asked whether the city would take any action before Monday, when the General Assembly is expecting to vote, Carlee said: “Our phones are open. Operators are standing by.”

He said the city would look at all options, including litigation.

A lack of clarity

State Treasurer Janet Cowell on Thursday reiterated her concern that transferring control of Charlotte Douglas to an independent authority is a large, unprecedented transaction.

“There’s enough questions and lack of clarity to cause litigation,” she told the Observer. “Bondholders don’t like uncertainty.”

Orr said Thursday that he’s not concerned the bill could divert revenue to airports in surrounding counties.

In fact, Orr said after the monthly Airport Advisory Committee meeting, revenue sharing could even benefit Charlotte Douglas.

“We need to think of the airport as a system,” Orr said. “The more there’s communication and cooperation in the region, the better it would be for everyone. … It benefits us sometimes if smaller airplanes use a different facility.”

In the House, Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican whose district includes the airport, offered a passionate explanation of why he decided to vote for the bill at the last minute.

“I got up this morning planning on voting no … sat down in this chair today ready to vote no,” he said. “I’m getting ready to vote yes. … This is a terribly difficult decision that probably crushes me politically.”

Jeter said he changed his mind in part because the bill specifies that two authority members would come from Charlotte’s westside.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said, “Most of the best decisions we make are the hardest. This is one.

“Political leaders don’t like it and I understand,” he said of the bill. “We have to make the decision that is in the best interests of the state of North Carolina.” Staff writers Dan Burley and Ely Portillo contributed to this story.