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March 5, 2013

NC Gov. Pat McCrory: Slow down airport bill

A bill that would transfer control of Charlotte's airport from the city to an independent authority should 'slow down,' Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday.

A bill that would transfer control of Charlotte’s airport from the city to an independent authority should “slow down,” Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday.

But Charlotte’s former longtime mayor declined to offer his opinion of any transfer, instead characterizing it as a local dispute.

“This seems to be a dispute between two factions in Charlotte – the city leaders and local business leaders,” he said. “What I’m recommending is some of this legislation slow down. The factions in Charlotte need to talk to each other and identify what the problem is and what’s the best long-term solution, like we used to do.”

Legislation to create an airport authority has been on the fast track. Introduced less than three weeks ago, it has sailed through two committees and faces a scheduled Senate vote on Wednesday.

After watching the bill fly through the Senate Finance Committee last week, Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin, a Republican, grumbled that it was “bum-rushed” through.

On Monday night, the council voted unanimously to spend up to $150,000 on a study that would weigh the pros and cons of an authority. To prepare for the study, the city has contacted seven stakeholders – including US Airways, aviation director Jerry Orr and Norfolk Southern railroad – for their thoughts on how the airport should be governed.

Supporters, including the bill’s Republican sponsors, say a regional authority would be better able to guide an airport that has grown into the world’s sixth busiest. Some, including Charlotte developer Johnny Harris, say they worry the airport could become “politicized” under the city.

But critics, such as Mayor Anthony Foxx, say the airport has thrived for nearly 80 years as a city department, often benefiting from the city’s financial oversight. On Monday, Foxx said he wanted to clear up what he said are some misimpressions about the airport. The biggest, he said, is that the city is taking money from the airport to fund regular city services.

“There is a law that says that even if this council wanted to do it, it couldn’t,” Foxx said. “And this council, or any council, has never wanted to do that.”

Democrat David Howard, a council member, said people in the business community who have a problem with how the airport is being run should say their complaints in public. Howard said that Orr, the aviation director, should be a staff resource for the study – but shouldn’t be on the oversight group.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, who appeared with McCrory at a Charlotte jobs announcement, also suggested the House will study the issue.

“The Charlotte airport is an enormous success story,” he told reporters, “which is why we have to go about this in a very methodical fashion, to make sure we don’t change for change’s sake but we change because we think it’s another strategic advantage for the airport, the airlines that use it, for the businesses that are customers.”

The bill would create a 13-member authority, with members appointed by the governor, the speaker and the Senate President Pro Tem, as well as local governments in Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties.

The authority bill was scheduled to reach the Senate floor last week. But Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and its main Senate sponsor, pulled it to get answers to questions about the more-than-$800 million in airport debt.

The debt is financed by the city with airport revenue bonds. It’s unclear what would happen to those bonds. One aide told senators a “best case” would involve a simple transfer of bonds from the city to an authority. A “worst case” might mean the bonds would have to be recalled and re-issued.

Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, a Concord Republican who supports the idea of an authority, called that “playing with fire.”

Tillis said he plans to discuss the bonds at a meeting this week with the state treasurer. Rucho could not be reached.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and GOP leader, said any study should be done in time to allow a decision before the legislative session ends in early summer.

“I don’t see any need to push it past the end of the long session,” she said. “At this point we’d like to have a decision by the end of the session.”

Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, the House sponsor of the bill, said he has little doubt how a city study would turn out.

“I’ll make a prediction,” he said. “The study will say the city of Charlotte is an excellent entity to run the airport and they should keep it.”

Charlotte City Council member Michael Barnes, a Democrat, said he is worried that the city may spend tax dollars on the study – and not have it finished in time before legislators make a decision.

Interim City Manager Julie Burch said she thinks the study can be finished by May 15. The city expects the General Assembly to still be in session.

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