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City declines to aid in its own amputation

North Carolina’s legislature had Charlotte locked in a masterful trap: Heads we win, tails you lose. Pay me now or pay me later. And you’ll look bad doing it.

Republicans pushing to seize Charlotte Douglas International Airport from city control offered what they called a compromise. Instead of ramming through legislation on a thin rationale, they would create a commission to study the issue and make recommendations.

That sounded great. Slowing Sen. Bob Rucho’s bill down enough to figure out its ramifications was exactly what we and many Charlotte business leaders advocated all spring. But there was a catch. The 12-person commission would consist of eight members appointed by Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, and four appointed by the Charlotte City Council.

So the group, explicitly created to explore all possible governance options for the airport, would have a two-thirds majority of members appointed by legislative leaders supportive of the airport being run by a new independent authority. Two of the eight legislative appointees would be Democrats, but they could be authority backers as well. Further, the bill spells out that a bare majority of seven votes would be sufficient to make the commission’s recommendations final.

Thus, the trap: The city could be a minority on a commission designed to back an authority it opposes, or it could decline, as it did Monday, and stand on the sidelines while the legislature creates the authority immediately. The process to do that is expected to be reignited in the House Finance Committee Wednesday morning.

The city is made to look unwilling to bend. In truth, it simply declined to pull the lever on its own beheading.

If the legislature were truly interested in seeking compromise and determining what’s best for Charlotte Douglas, it would have created a study commission divided evenly between legislative appointees and city appointees. Such a panel could, we suspect, hash out the complexities and arrive at a compromise all parties could tolerate. It’s not too late for the legislature to assemble precisely such a group. If it does, the city should participate; its blanket opposition to an authority shouldn’t prevent it from taking part in good faith efforts to find a middle ground.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee told the Observer editorial board Tuesday that he has no secret weapon to prevent an authority bill from passing. He said he’s “heavily dependent on the rational good sense of members of the General Assembly” – an unenviable position if we’ve ever heard one.

If his optimism on that front is misplaced, we suspect Charlotte would eventually sue. Carlee said the city doesn’t want to do that but that all options are still on the table. Perhaps that was part of the city’s calculations as well: Participating in the study commission might dilute its legal options down the road.

We, like Carlee, hope it doesn’t come to that. Instead of retaliating with poorly-thought-out legislation (and alienating potential Charlotte supporters of Tillis’ budding U.S. Senate run), the House could create a truly balanced study commission. Better yet, it could drop the issue altogether, let the city continue to run its world-class airport, and get to work fixing things that are actually broken.

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