RALEIGH After flying through the N.C. Senate on Wednesday, a bill to create a Charlotte airport authority faces a slower ride through the state House but maybe not as slow as city officials would like.
The Senate passed the bill 32-18, largely along party lines despite last-ditch pleas from Democrats.
Republicans also rejected a Democratic appeal to wait a few days for the state treasurers opinion on outstanding airport debt. They relied instead on a memo from a Louisiana bond counsel, obtained through a former Charlotte City Council member.
The bill, introduced by Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, would transfer airport control from the city of Charlotte to an independent, 13-member authority.
Democratic Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte called the move a takeover, which was debated for less than an hour in two Senate committees.
Seventy-seven years to build, foster and develop the airport and less than 55 minutes to take it away, he told fellow senators.
Nobodys taking anything and moving it to South Carolina, responded Sen. Tom Apodaca of Hendersonville, a co-sponsor. Were just trying to make a reasonable and prudent business decision.
Charlotte City Council member Andy Dulin called the vote a step backward for the city.
I can only hope that the North Carolina House gives the city enough time to complete our study by May 1, said Dulin, a Republican.
In response to the bill, the city has launched a study of airport governance. House leaders and even GOP Gov. Pat McCrory have suggested the bill will slow down. Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, has promised a methodical review.
But the bills House sponsor, Republican Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, said the House review may be done before the citys study is.
I dont think it will be two months, he said. Well move forward with it with the serious deliberation that it deserves.
Brawley said hes skeptical of the citys airport study.
The city is going to do a study thats going to say they should keep it, he said.
What happens to debt?
One issue almost certain to arise in the House is one that arose in the Senate the fate of more than $800 million in airport debt.
In the letter to city officials, a Charlotte bond counsel has said theres no legal provision for transferring the debt from the city to an authority and that a transfer could require bondholder consent.
However an advisory memo from a Louisiana-based law firm Jones Walker concluded that an authority would not affect bond obligations. The memo, cited in debate by Rucho, was sent to the Alliance for a Better Charlotte, a group started in the 1990s and run by former City Council member Stan Campbell.
The group has cobwebs around it, Graham said, adding that no one knows whos paying for the Jones Walker opinion.
Campbell said the alliance will pay for it. He said he wont know how much it costs until he gets the bill from Jones Walker.
Alliance and the airport
The Alliance for a Better Charlotte is a public policy group created by moderate business leaders in the late 1990s to counteract the conservative response to the play Angels in America. One of its chief fundraisers was developer Johnny Harris.
Campbell said only a handful of people, including Harris, are still active in the group.
Harris has warned publicly against city intrusions into airport management for at least a year. Like Campbell, hes a former member of the citys Airport Advisory Committee. Last week he declined to chair the citys study of airport governance.
Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville unsuccessfully asked senators Wednesday to wait for Treasurer Janet Cowells report on the bonds.
Weve got to be careful when were monkeying around with other governments in the state and creating turbulence, he said.