RALEIGH Rejecting pleas to slow down what one lawmaker called the seizure of Charlottes airport, the N.C. Senate on Tuesday tentatively approved a bill that would transfer airport control from the city to an independent authority.
Senators voted for the measure 33-16, largely along party lines. The Republican-backed bill is expected to win final approval Wednesday before moving to the House.
Democrats tried unsuccessfully to derail or at least delay the measure.
Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte urged colleagues not to rip out the heart of the region. And Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte said, If the bill is a great idea today it will be a good idea tomorrow.
If the bill is a bad idea today, he added, I sure would like to know it before I jump off the cliff.
But Republicans turned back an effort to study the bill and two other Democratic amendments. The city has already launched a study expected to be finished by May.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and main sponsor, argued that an authority would ensure the continued success of one of the nations busiest airports and an economic engine for the region and state. He said an authority also would provide a smooth transition after the retirement of Aviation Director Jerry Orr, whos 72.
Graham argued against changing a management structure proven to work since 1935. He criticized what he called the lack of transparency with the legislation, which he said has been pushed by unnamed, faceless business leaders.
Rucho has said the idea came from local business leaders, whom he has declined to name. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, has characterized the fight as a dispute between factions in City Hall and the business community.
Bond counsel memo
Graham and other critics also questioned a memo Rucho touted.
The advisory memo, from a Louisiana-based bond counsel, sought to answer questions about more than $800 million in outstanding airport debt, questions that had delayed the Senate vote by a week. The firm, Jones Walker, concluded that an authority would not impact the bond obligations.
The memo was sent to the Alliance for a Better Charlotte, a group started in the 1990s and run by former Charlotte City Council member Stan Campbell.
We arent very familiar with Alliance for a Better Charlotte, Graham said.
Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said the memo was just that, not a legal opinion that would carry more weight. Against that he cited a letter to the City Council last month from the citys bond counsel.
In the letter, Donald Ubell said there is no legal provision for transferring the debt from the city to an authority. Transferring it without bondholder consent, he said, could result in a city default. The Jones Walker memo, however, dismissed that notion.
Were playing with fire, Blue said.
Democrats appealed unsuccessfully to await an opinion on the bonds from state Treasurer Janet Cowell. Her report is due this month.
Minority leader criticizes
Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville alluded to last years legislation that transferred control of Ashevilles airport to a regional authority. Ruchos bill, he said, is just what I experienced last year on steroids.
In a comment that seemed directed at Orr, Nesbitt cited a city employee whos a benevolent dictator as a reason behind the bill.
Because one guy decides hes bigger than everybody, then he goes and gets him a posse to push the legislation.
Orr has previously said that he liked the idea of an authority, but he hasnt taken a stand on the current bill.
Reached Tuesday, Orr declined to comment.
In a statement, Nesbitt later said Republicans were intent on a power grab and attempted seizure of the airport.
After watching the vote from the gallery, Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin said he was surprised his fellow Republicans voted to allow an unelected authority to seize land. The bill gives the authority the power to acquire land through eminent domain, even in an expedited quick take process.
My party is supposed to be for property rights, Dulin said. That just blows my mind.
GOP council member Warren Cooksey, who was also at the legislature arguing against the bill, alluded to Ruchos citation of a report by a task force led by former Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. The task force concluded that no local government should control or regulate the development of those regional assets. But, it added, further investigation and legal expertise is needed.
I didnt realize I voted for Bob Rucho to carry out Democrat policies, Cooksey said.
The bill could move slower in the House.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, last week called Charlotte Douglas an enormous success story and said he would move in a very methodical fashion.