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Despite opposition, Bank of America Stadium financing bill advances

RALEIGH A bill allowing the use of public money to help the Carolina Panthers renovate their stadium could face a House vote Wednesday after winning approval from a key panel.

But is it enough to tie the Panthers to Charlotte?

The House Finance Committee passed the bill 21-11, but only after an hourlong debate that saw unusual alliances on both sides and could foreshadow arguments when the measure reaches the full House.

The bipartisan bill would allow the city of Charlotte to use up to $110 million in local taxes earmarked for the Charlotte Convention Center to help upgrade Bank of America Stadium. But it’s a compromise that falls short of the Panthers’ initial request.

The team had asked the city for $144 million and the state for $62.5 million toward a stadium upgrade of nearly $300 million. The city would have come up with its share by doubling the prepared food tax, which would require legislative approval.

That deal came with a so-called tether that would keep the team in Charlotte for 15 years.

But the compromise, if passed, would send the city and the team back to the negotiating table.

“We need to let the bill progress through the legislature before we continue discussions with the city,” Panthers President Danny Morrison said in a statement Tuesday.

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble, who led negotiations with the team, said he’s not sure how the compromise bill would affect the tether.

“Freeing up those (Convention Center) dollars doesn’t give us all of the funding in the current partnership with the Panthers,” he said. “But we appreciate all efforts … to keep the Panthers in Charlotte and North Carolina.”

Lawmakers say the bill may be the best they can do.

Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte and other Mecklenburg lawmakers have said even a local tax increase stands no chance in a tax-averse, GOP-controlled General Assembly.

On Tuesday, Samuelson told the committee that the bill she, Brawley and two Democrats are sponsoring would give the city flexibility to use existing occupancy and prepared food taxes for the stadium as well as amateur sports.

But it still drew fire from both sides of the aisle.

“There are a lot of people in the state who have a problem with what is happening in professional sports, the NFL in particular,” said Rep. Bert Jones, a Reidsville Republican. “The NFL is big money, let’s face it.”

Rep. Paul Luebke, a liberal Democrat from Durham, called the bill “corporate welfare.”

“This is welfare for a major, profitable corporation,” he said.

Because money for the stadium and Convention Center would come from the same pot, one lawmaker suggested the city could come back with a request for more money for the Convention Center.

“You’re short-changing one fund to back up another fund,” said GOP Rep. Edgar Starnes of Caldwell County. “It seems almost disingenuous.”

Others defended the measure, saying the Panthers not only pay state taxes but help the economy. Republican Rep. Jeff Collins of Rocky Mount said stores in his area make money selling Panthers’ merchandise.

Rep. Andy Wells, a Hickory Republican, lamented the long debate on what he considered a local issue.

“We … have our hands full right here before we go telling the city of Charlotte what to do,” he said. “I’m from a community that’s lost 30,000 jobs, so I’ve got a little more to worry about in my district than what’s happening in the city of Charlotte.”

Samuelson said she’s optimistic about the bill’s chances in the full House. But one co-sponsor said the bill could face trouble.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, said despite Tuesday’s lopsided committee vote, Republicans – who dominate the House – split on the measure.

“There is (the) potential for problems on the floor,” he said. “It could lose.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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