RALEIGH Its not what city officials want, but a bill allowing Charlotte to help the Panthers finance stadium improvements without a tax hike began what could be an easy trip through the N.C. House Thursday.
The House government committee endorsed the bill, which would allow the city to use taxes now earmarked for the Charlotte Convention Center for upgrades to Bank of America Stadium.
House Bill 193 moves to the Finance Committee and could face a House vote next week.
The city had originally asked for authority to double the 1 percent prepared food and beverage tax. It then planned to contribute $144 million toward the stadium renovation, which could cost more than $250 million.
Finding little support for that proposal, the city asked this week for authority to raise the tax by a half percent.
In a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders, council member James Mitchell said House Bill 193 would fall far short of whats needed.
Even if the city were to bleed every penny from those existing revenue sources away from the convention center the available revenues would fall far short, he wrote.
I fear the states failure to (approve the tax hike) will ultimately lead to the sale and relocation of the Carolina Panthers.
But the House bills bi-partisan sponsors Republican Reps. Ruth Samuelson and Bill Brawley and Democratic Reps. Becky Carney and Beverly Earle say their plan is the best the city can hope for in a Republican legislature averse to any tax increases.
Before the House panel approved the bill on a voice vote, Samuelson deflected critics on both sides from the right and left.
I dont think its right, said Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican. Tax money of any sort should not be used to support private enterprise.
And Democratic Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham made a similar point.
I just think its wrong to support an operator as profitable as the Panthers when we have so many other cuts in the state, he said.
The website Deadspin this month reported audits that showed the Panthers made nearly $100 million profit in 2010 and 2011. The team responded by saying its cash flow those years was $66.5 million.
Current occupancy and prepared food taxes earmarked for the convention center could fund $110 million in new debt, according to the city. City officials say thats not enough to pay anticipated upgrades to the convention center and help the Panthers.
Samuelson told the House panel the city would have to make choices.
By doing this were saying, You need to prioritize among all your wants and wishes, she said.
Samuelson said that by financing some of the stadium improvements, the city would gain a financial interest in the stadium.
The team released a statement: The Carolina Panthers continue to appreciate the efforts and support from the elected leadership Obviously, they understand the economic impact of the team for both the region and the state. The Panthers are significant contributors to the tax base of the State of North Carolina, Mecklenburg County and the City of Charlotte.
Earle told the House panel the state would lose millions in tax revenue were the Panthers to leave. And the Third Ward resident said it would be a loss for her uptown neighborhood.
I dont want a huge, empty stadium sitting there in my front yard, she said.