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House should delay airport bill’s takeoff

Charlotte residents would lose even more than property worth billions of dollars under a bill the N.C. Senate tentatively passed Tuesday. They would also be stripped of control over an airport whose efficient operation has long helped drive this region’s thriving economy.

The Senate voted 33-16 Tuesday to take Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city, which has governed it successfully for 78 years, and give it to a new independent authority. Unless House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County slows things down, Charlotte taxpayers will soon lose jurisdiction over a jewel responsible for an estimated $10 billion a year in economic activity.

“The City of Charlotte,” the bill says, “shall transfer to the Authority within 90 days after enactment of this act all its right, title and interest to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport…” It adds: “This transfer includes all property, real or personal, tangible or intangible … Any claim by the City of Charlotte on account of acquisition of property by the Authority is extinguished.”

Good sense is also being extinguished.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican who is the bill’s leading proponent, has offered no convincing reason to make a change. It is incumbent upon him to do so, given that Charlotte Douglas is a national model. Absent that reasoning, it appears the bill was birthed because airport director Jerry Orr took offense at some slight by Mayor Anthony Foxx or former City Manager Curt Walton, and doesn’t want the city meddling in his fiefdom.

The 13-member authority would be appointed by 12 different people or bodies, and so would be accountable to no one. Orr, by contrast, is a city employee, who reports to the city manager, who reports to the publicly elected City Council. Rucho says the city lacks the expertise to govern the airport, but his bill imposes no requirement that any member have aviation expertise. A majority will be appointed by people outside of Mecklenburg County.

Rucho says the airport is a regional asset, so needs regional buy-in. It already has that; area counties are grateful that Charlotte Douglas has been run the way it has.

Rucho says he wants to ensure that the airport is well-led going forward. We agree the airport should not become politicized, and the City Council does not need to micromanage. But the city has run it well for generations, and we’re confident that when Orr, 72, retires, the city will be capable of hiring a dynamite replacement.

Finally, bill supporters worry that the city could try to divert airport money for non-airport uses. This is illegal, as the city attorney has made clear, and so is not a realistic threat.

It’s not at all clear that Rucho’s seizure is legal. Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, on Tuesday cited N.C. Supreme Court rulings that suggest it may not be. The City of Charlotte could sue, casting a long shadow over the city and airport. As Clodfelter said Tuesday, “Why do we want to create that kind of turmoil?”

The city of Charlotte has spent 78 years building up the sixth-busiest airport by takeoffs and landings in the world. Now the state wants to swoop in and snatch that nice, juicy plum. Tillis and the House should slow things down.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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