RALEIGH Despite appeals to slow down and even a charge of political malpractice a Senate panel Wednesday endorsed a bill to create a new Charlotte airport authority and strip control from the city.
By a voice vote, the Senate Rules Committee passed the bill sponsored by Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican. The bill now goes to the Finance Committee, which Rucho chairs, and if passed there, to the Senate floor.
The bill also would have to pass the House and be signed by Gov. Pat McCrory. So far, its on a fast track.
The Senate panels vote came on the same day Democratic Mayor Anthony Foxx, joined by Republican council member Andy Dulin and top city officials, asked Mecklenburg County lawmakers to study the proposal before approving it.
At stake is control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, a sprawling enterprise that accounts for thousands of jobs and an estimated $10 billion a year in regional economic activity.
Its very success was cited by both proponents and opponents of the authority bill.
What we want to be sure of is that the growth continues, Rucho told the committee.
An independent management authority, he argued, would guarantee experience, expertise and a clear focus in guiding the airport after the retirement of Aviation Director Jerry Orr, whos 71. The airport, he said, should not be a part-time job for one of the assistant city managers.
Orr reports to the city manager. Critics said the airports success has come under city management.
To move this bill today would be an act of political malpractice, Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Charlotte Democrat, told the committee. Why are we about to break something thats not broken?
Part of the reason seems to be the prospect of Orrs retirement.
Chuck Allen, US Airways Charlotte-based community liaison, said after the meeting that the airline is pretty agnostic on the authority vs. city question. The airline, which operates its largest hub in Charlotte, intends to merge with American Airlines.
Management philosophy, he said, is the key to a successful airport. Asked whether that philosophy could change after Orr is gone, he said, It certainly is a concern.
Earlier, Foxx appeared to acknowledge such concerns.
We want to involve all our partners, including the newly formed American Airlines, in helping us make the transition to the future, he told lawmakers.
The bill would put the airport under control of a 13-member authority, with members appointed from Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties. It would give appointments to the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem.
It would transfer airport property from the city which has overseen it since 1935 and give the authority limited power of eminent domain.
My concern is the speed and lack of deliberation with which were proceeding, Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, told the panel. It just sounds like more of a power grab by Raleigh of (something) best left under local control.
In approving the bill, the rules committee rejected an appeal from Dulin to at least study the issue.
Just take a breath and step back a little bit, he said, and give it some time and study.
Earlier, Foxx made a similar appeal to a dozen of the 17 Mecklenburg lawmakers. Most of the lawmakers appeared open to the idea of studying the idea before proceeding.
Rucho and the bills House sponsor, GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, did not attend the 7:30 a.m. meeting. Foxxs visit, not confirmed until late Tuesday, was not on the delegations original agenda. Brawley said he and some others werent aware the mayor was coming.
Foxx, a Democrat, urged lawmakers to study the bill.
We do believe there may be consequences that may not have been contemplated, Foxx told lawmakers. It could be a Pottery Barn situation: If you break it, you bought it.
He questioned, for example, whether an authority would be as responsive as the city to noise concerns of people living under a flight path.
Bond rating concerns
With Foxx were acting City Manager Julie Burch, Finance Director Greg Gaskins and police Chief Rodney Monroe.
Gaskins in particular talked about the importance to the airport of the citys AAA bond rating, and the possible costs of losing that valuable rating by changing to an independent authority.
He said there could be implications from a transfer of control on the airports $800 million of debt.
At the Rules Committee meeting, Stein said state Treasurer Janet Cowell expressed concerns about the airport debt as well as other local bonds, should the authority bill pass.
Cowell could not be reached.
Other lawmakers asked about the reaction of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has expressed concerns about an airport authority in Asheville. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, said a study would also review whether a regional authority should oversee airports in Monroe and Concord.
Several Democrats suggested they would support a study, and so did at least two Republicans.
Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville, whose district includes the airport, said he would support a study. So did GOP Rep. Ruth Samuelson.
Later, she made it clear she doesnt want a study delaying a decision beyond the current session.
Were not open to a city-funded study that takes six months, she said.
Legislators hope to adjourn by June.