RALEIGH House Speaker Thom Tillis said Wednesday that he wouldn’t “put much stock in” parts of a Senate-passed bill to create a Charlotte airport authority, sending the clearest signal yet that the measure will be changed.
While saying a new authority is likely, Tillis pledged to work on “a bill that makes sense.” That apparently would include a bigger voice for the city of Charlotte.
“Charlotte still has to have obviously a very weighted presence,” Tillis told a visiting Charlotte Chamber group. Tillis is a Republican from Cornelius in northern Mecklenburg County who is often mentioned as a U.S. Senate candidate next year.
If lawmakers can’t agree on a measure this session, he said, the issue may carry over until next year.
Tillis’ comments came on a day when city officials and Chamber leaders appealed to lawmakers to take a more cautious and collaborative approach to creation of any authority.
The Senate already has passed a bill to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city. That bill is now in the House. It would create a 13-member authority, with only two members appointed by the city of Charlotte. Five surrounding counties would each have an appointment.
“Don’t assume that as we’re moving that bill we’re moving that bill,” Tillis told reporters.
He said lawmakers could either pass an authority bill or create a committee to further study the issue.
The Chamber group clapped after Tillis’ comments.
“Tillis’ comments were very collaborative,” said Brett Carter, the Chamber’s chairman. “I think that’s the direction both parties want to see us move in.”
Chamber President Bob Morgan said the city “should be open to the idea of an authority as the best governance model” while the legislature “should be open to the need to be more deliberative.”
Efforts to keep the airport under city control were complicated by a city-funded study led by consultant Bob Hazel. He recommended transferring control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to an authority rather than the city.
Hazel, who got a frosty reception when he reviewed his findings Monday for the City Council, reviewed them Wednesday morning for Mecklenburg County lawmakers. He said he made his recommendations even though “compared to other airports the case for change is weak.”
“I understand how people can disagree,” he said. “For those who say ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’ I understand that argument. I really do.”
However, he said he determined that a politically independent authority represents a better model for governing the airport.
A skeptical Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter questioned Hazel’s methodology, prompting a testy exchange.
“I appreciate you saying we deliberately violated our criteria,” Hazel said.
“Well, you did,” Clodfelter replied.
Clodfelter called the study “not particularly thorough.”
“And it comes to the conclusion without a lot of facts,” he said.
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee, who started his job in April when the airport discussion was well underway, said lawmakers have time to let the city resolve issues raised by the study.
“We’re not off the ground; we’re taxiing down the runway,” he said of the legislation. “We can go back to the terminal.”
He said the city could implement some of the consultant’s recommendations without an authority, even giving more power to the city’s Airport Advisory Committee.
“If this legislation went away tomorrow, I’m prepared to deal with all that stuff,” he said.
‘Everything’s on the table’
Asked about that, Tillis said, “Everything’s on the table right now.”
“What they need to do is come back and give us specifics,” he said.
But Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte, one of the Republican House leaders, told the Chamber group that she expects an authority to be created.
“There’s an openness to how we phase it in,” Samuelson said. “I don’t think there’s much receptivity to not doing it.”
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