RALEIGH After weeks of delay, a bill to create a new Charlotte airport authority is flying through the General Assembly, with House passage expected Thursday and a final Senate vote next week.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport would be under control of an independent authority Jan. 1.
“It’s time to put it to rest because there’s too much uncertainty out there,” Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and original sponsor, said Wednesday.
The House Finance Committee on Wednesday passed the latest version of the bill, which would transfer airport control from the city to an independent 11-member authority. The full House is expected to pass it Thursday. Final Senate approval could come by Tuesday.
As a so-called local bill, it would become law without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, even though an authority has little support in Charlotte.
An Observer poll in May found that by a 3-1 margin, Charlotte voters want the city to keep control over the airport. Another poll of Charlotte voters found only 16 percent supported an airport authority.
“This is an intrusion by state government into local issues,” said council member Andy Dulin, a Republican who has fought the authority. “Quite frankly, the people aren’t going to forget.”
Charlotte Mayor Patsy Kinsey said Wednesday night that the city was “keeping the lines of communication open.”
“We regret that it’s gotten to this,” she said.
‘Wham-o … an authority’
Wednesday’s committee passage came despite calls from Charlotte Democrats to slow down.
“This is a major airport, and we’re saying overnight, within six months, ‘Wham-o, you’re an authority’,” Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, told the panel. “At the end of the day, we’re going to be involved in a lawsuit.”
House Republicans have moved fast on the legislation since Charlotte city officials this week rejected their offer to form a joint study commission.
The House, Senate and city each would have had four appointments to a 12-member commission, co-chaired by a city and state appointee.
GOP sponsors said because the House and Senate would have had to appoint Democratic members, the commission was balanced. The city disagreed. Instead it invited lawmakers to await the results of its own study.
Carney said she was “disappointed the City Council did not take advantage of the opportunity” to join the study.
But city lobbyist Dana Fenton told the committee that “our council did not see that (study commission) as really equal.”
Fenton also raised what he called “the ‘L’ word” – litigation.
“We don’t want to go into litigation,” he said, “However at the same time we are concerned about unintended consequences. So we will keep all options on the table.”
Democratic Sen. Dan Clodfelter of Charlotte, a lawyer involved in a similar lawsuit on behalf of Asheville, said, “If the city chooses to litigate, it will win.”
The House bill differs from an earlier, Senate-passed version.
The 11-member authority would no longer have appointments by the governor and legislative leaders.
Instead the mayor and City Council would each have two appointments, half of whom would have to live on the westside. Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties – Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln and Union – would each have one appointment. Their terms would begin Oct. 1.
Those 10 members would appoint the 11th by Dec. 1.
The bill specifies that the authority’s first executive director will be the city’s aviation director as of Feb. 14. That would be Jerry Orr.
Unlike some earlier versions, the bill also calls for the authority to pay the city unspecified compensation for “unreimbursed or unrecovered cost to the city of acquiring the airport property” not paid with airport revenues or federal money.
Sponsors said retirement and other benefits for current airport employees would transfer under the new authority.
Under the bill, the authority would assume responsibilities for airport bonds and other liabilities. But a spokesman for the state treasurer said Wednesday the department continues to have concerns about the fate of bonds.
Transferring Charlotte’s airport to an authority would raise thorny legal issues involving airport debt and could even affect the cost of state borrowing, the North Carolina Treasurer’s office said Monday.
In March a Treasury department official told lawmakers that legal uncertainty over the airport’s $860 million debt “could result in potential prolonged litigation.”
Thursday’s House vote is expected to fall along party lines, with one possible exception. Republican Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville said he’s undecided, though leaning toward voting no.
“I do have concern that we’re getting past the crux of the issue and more inter-personality conflicts,” he said.
If the House passes the bill as expected, it would return to the Senate, which approved an earlier version.
Rucho said Wednesday he expects the Senate to go along with House changes early next week.
“Unless things change, I will likely ask the Senate to support it,” he said.
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