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Wise to delay voting on airport authority

Given that transferring Charlotte’s airport to an independent authority was a solution in search of a problem, it’s good to see the N.C. House at least slow the process. An upcoming city study of the transfer’s ramifications could provide vital information even if it does not change any minds about the move.

As important, delaying a vote on this fast-tracked change provides time to tackle potentially costly legal concerns raised in a state treasurer’s report that legislators themselves commissioned.

Key lawmakers already seem inclined to dismiss findings from the Charlotte-commissioned study that’s due May 1. Matthews Republican Rep. Bill Brawley, chief sponsor of the House airport bill, said Tuesday the findings might not carry much weight, given that the city hired the consultant and city leaders are lobbying to keep ownership of the airport.

If so, legislative leaders should be equally dismissive of a pro-authority report being paid for by the Alliance for a Better Charlotte, a business group led by longtime political activist Stan Campbell. Campbell and members of the group have been backers of the transfer of the airport to an authority.

But lawmakers should not dismiss a report from the state treasurer’s office last week. That report came from Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, LLP, whose law practice is devoted primarily to public finance and has acted as bond counsel and underwriters’ counsel for N.C. issuers for many years.

That puts the firm in a good position to speak to concerns with the airport transfer and they fingered some potentially serious ones. Among them: the “state-mandated transfer” might “impermissibly” impair bond holders’ rights under the U.S. Constitution; it might cause default under documents governing the issuance of the city’s airport revenue bonds; and it might be a violation of the state’s agreement with the holders of the revenue bonds. These problems could result “in potential prolonged litigation,” the firm notes.

The firm also said that getting bondholders’ consent would mitigate some of the concerns. But Steve Turner, writing for the firm, cautioned “our experience has been that consents often are difficult to obtain, depending on the facts and circumstances involved.”

If the transfer did result in litigation, Turner wrote that “in the absence of a North Carolina court having decided similar matters, we cannot predict how North Carolina would come out on these issues.”

That alarmed Sen Dan Clodfelter, a Democrat from Charlotte: “It’s the kind of red flag you don’t play around with. You get it resolved before you jump off the cliff. … If you get it wrong, there’s a lot of money at stake.”

Added Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville: “Certainly it’s an obstacle that needs to be overcome, and I think overcome before final passage of the bill.”

They’re right. This editorial board still believes changing the governance structure of the well-run Charlotte airport serves no purpose. The current structure with supervision by an elected council provides a level of accountability that will be gone under a commission appointed by multiple groups and individuals with different constituencies.

We’re not persuaded by the most recent rationale for the change. Brawley said Tuesday it is part of a statewide economic development project that would make the city a transportation hub for the East Coast. The airport was well on the way to that status without the state’s interference. Work on a $92 million rail cargo transfer station at the airport is already going on.

This rationale sounds a lot like the better talking points authority backers have been urging from lawmakers so the transfer will look less like a brazen power grab.

It still looks like a power grab, one with a potential whopper of a cost. If lawmakers won’t drop this needless change, they should delay any moves until concerns are resolved. In the interim, with better information, maybe a good idea could emerge.

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