It wasnt supposed to be this way.
Charlottes former mayor is in the governors office. A neighboring lawmaker runs the state House. Big cities generally wield more legislative clout than ever.
But barely two weeks into a new legislative session, Charlotte officials find themselves scrambling to fend off unexpected threats from Raleigh.
At stake is nothing less than money for light-rail expansion, control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport and, possibly, the future of the Carolina Panthers.
Things have obviously gotten off to a rocky start, says Mayor Anthony Foxx. But we all have an interest in working well together. And my expectation is once things settle down a little, we will.
In just seven legislative days, lawmakers have:
• Backed up Republican Gov. Pat McCrorys warnings that money for the Blue Line rail extension could be jeopardized if the city funds a controversial streetcar.
• Begun writing legislation to transfer control of the airport from the city to an independent authority.
• Made clear that any push to allow the city to raise local prepared food taxes to help renovate Bank of America Stadium a project that could determine the Panthers long-term plans might face an uphill fight.
I dont think this is the treatment the Queen City was expecting, says Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College.
Republican leaders say Charlotte simply has to face what the rest of the state is facing tough decisions in an era of limited resources.
I dont believe that theyre on the defensive, GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews said Saturday. Were all learning to live with challenging economic times. And until we turn it around with tax reform and economic growth, were all facing that challenge.
To some extent the friction reflects the growth of urban North Carolina.
Were a state focused on the metro areas and everybody else, says David Goldfield, a historian at UNC Charlotte. Those are really the dividing lines.
But theres also raw politics.
Clash of ideals
Changing demographics have made Charlotte, like other big cities, a Democratic stronghold. This in a state where Republicans not only captured the governors office for the first time in 20 years but expanded their already historic control of the General Assembly.
Mecklenburg was among only a handful of counties that President Barack Obama carried in November. Surrounding counties, like the state as a whole, voted for Republican Mitt Romney.
When McCrory and other Republicans warned that Charlottes bid for light-rail money could be hurt by its continued drive for a city-funded streetcar, Foxx pushed back. He quoted warning four years ago by McCrory, then a gubernatorial candidate, against the culture of intimidation from Raleigh. (Republicans took control of both houses of the N.C. legislature two years later).
Some GOP lawmakers, in turn, accused Foxx of inflammatory political rhetoric.
Mayor Foxx is one of the most high-profile Democrats in the state, so its not all that surprising to see political tension (with) a state government dominated by Republicans, says Jonathan Kappler, research director for the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation.
Theres also a clash of philosophies.
Charlotte needs money to expand the Blue Line to the university area. So far its received $82 million of a promised state contribution of $299 million, but needs legislative approval for the rest.
It also needs approval to hike its prepared food and beverage taxes to raise nearly $144 million for the Panthers, mostly for a stadium renovation.
For some Republicans, that could be a lot to ask for.
Were not big government folks, says Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican and UNC Charlotte graduate. Were not a blank credit card.
One, theres not a lot of cash laying around. And secondly, youve got folks governing who think less government is better government.
Foxx says because the city can no longer grow its tax base simply through annexation, projects such as the streetcar can spur economic growth in parts of the city that havent experienced it.
Were trying to anticipate future challenges and deal with them now as opposed to waiting for them to mount, he says. Thats a matter of communication and reaching out to (legislators) and thats what were doing.
Air traffic control
The effort to take control of the airport out of the citys hands came as a surprise to city officials. Not until last week did Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, publicly acknowledge that they plan to introduce legislation creating an airport authority.
As a city department, run by an aviation director who reports to the city manager, Charlotte Douglas has grown into one of the busiest airports in the country. An authority would transfer control to an independent board not subject to city oversight.
City officials oppose any transfer. But supporters, who include some business leaders, say it would be in the long-term interest of the airport.
We want to be sure that proper leadership and proper management is in place to get the highest benefit for the region and for Charlotte, Rucho said. Thats what this is all about.
The political reality
For the stadium upgrade and other costs, the Panthers are asking the state for $62 million and investing $96 million themselves. The city decided Friday to contribute nearly $144 million, but will have to ask tax-averse Republican lawmakers to support a local tax increase.
House Speaker Thom Tillis has reportedly told team officials the state is unlikely to make a direct appropriation. Rucho said theres a simple reason.
All I can say is that things are not like they were five, 10 years ago, he said. Times are tougher. Weve got a number of issues that just force us to prioritize our spending.
For the rail line, the citys request for millions of state dollars comes as the mayor tries to spend $119 million in local money for a streetcar.
Critics say lawmakers could be reluctant to give transit money to a city that can afford a streetcar, regardless of who pays for it.
All Im telling (the city) is that if they build a streetcar, it makes it harder to pass a budget with the Blue Line Extension in it, says Brawley. I need 55 Republicans who dont receive city transit money to pass (it)
I need for the mayor to understand the political reality.
Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat who heads the countys legislative delegation, says the streetcar, which would be funded by the city, shouldnt be an issue to legislators. The city, he says, is big enough to play in different sandboxes at the same time.
Since the issue flared, hes spoken to both McCrory and Foxx.
We have to make their relationship work because the issues are so important, he says. I think everybody understands that.
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