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Airport Authority bill passes committee, heads to full Senate vote

By Jim Morrill
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com

The effort to put control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport under an independent authority passed through the state Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. A full Senate vote is the next step.

The finance committee is co-chaired by Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews. Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, also a Republican from Matthews, are lead sponsors of the bill that would strip control of the airport from the city. The bills would establish a 13-member airport authority.

On Monday, Democratic Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte urged Gov. Pat McCrory to jump into the legislative debate over the city’s airport, asking him to “stop this unneeded state intrusion.”

In a letter, Graham asked the Republican governor – and former Charlotte mayor – to delay efforts to establish the independent airport authority. “One of your hallmarks … as mayor of Charlotte was your ability to put political disagreements aside in order to achieve consensus and keep our city moving forward,” Graham wrote.

He added, “I hope you will ask the bill sponsors to delay this legislation and allow local officials …to do just that.”

Through a spokesperson, McCrory declined to comment Monday. Last weekend, however, he told the Observer the fight was “not between Raleigh and Charlotte.”

“This is between factions within Charlotte that are apparently having strong disagreements on the future management of the airport,” he said.

Because the airport authority bills are “local,” affecting fewer than 15 counties, McCrory’s approval isn’t necessary. They can pass into law without his signature. He has no power to veto them.

Under the bills, members of a new authority would be appointed by the governor, the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem as well as officials from the city of Charlotte, Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties.

An official of the state Treasurer’s office is expected to be on hand at this afternoon’s Finance Committee hearing to discuss the implications of an authority on airport debt. In his letter, Graham said transferring airport control to an authority could jeopardize bonds that are currently financing a $1 billion airport expansion.

The city has run the airport since 1935. Under Aviation Director Jerry Orr and city oversight, it has won plaudits as the nation’s lowest-cost airport. Like Graham, Mayor Anthony Foxx, members of the city council and other defenders say if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

But advocates for change say an authority would insulate the airport from politics. Developer Johnny Harris has warned against political intrusions for at least two years.

Last March, for example, he told a business luncheon that the airport shouldn’t become a political football. He made the same point in speeches to the Rotary and the Charlotte Chamber.

“I was worried that it could become politicized,” Harris said Monday. He said his concerns grew with the city council’s inability to agree on a capital improvement plan last year. Some members pushed back against the mayor’s insistence that it include money for a streetcar.

“We have our city being strangled over the issue of whether we have a streetcar or not and that’s … the beginning of where problems start,” said Harris, a former member of the Airport Advisory Committee as well as the board of USAirways. “It’s indicative of the city being paralyzed.”

Bill sponsors say another reason for an authority is the $90 million intermodal facility under way at Charlotte/Douglas which will link air, freight and interstate trucking to and from three major ports – Jacksonville, Fla., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston.

A Logistics Task Force created under former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, and which included Jerry Orr, concluded last year that North Carolina should create similar transportation hubs in other areas and they should be governed regionally.

“The Task Force agrees that no local government should control or regulate the development of those regional assets,” the task force concluded.

In his letter, Graham said “city officials had no advance notice of the legislation, which was introduced just days ago.”

Rucho gave copies of the proposed bill to Foxx and a city council member and asked them to share it only with the council. When a copy was leaked to a Charlotte TV station, he filed the bill.

In an interview, Graham alluded to McCrory’s comments last month to city officials in which he warned them that continued city funding for the streetcar could jeopardize state funding for the light rail extension.

“He didn’t have a problem offering advice about the Lynx blue line as it related to the streetcar,” Graham, said. “So I'm just looking for a little friendly advice from the governor.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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