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Jim Martin on airport authority: ‘It smells’

By Taylor Batten

Jim Martin holds a unique position. He is the only person in the world, other than Pat McCrory, who knows what it’s like to be a Republican governor in North Carolina.

With former Gov. Jim Holshouser’s death last month, Charlotte’s Martin (we claim him, even if he lives on Lake Norman) has an unparalleled perspective on developments in the state capital and on McCrory’s performance. Martin, who was governor from 1985 to 1993, is still a voracious consumer of news. And he still has unmistakable opinions, particularly about state government.

After the national spotlight intensified on the state last week with a disparaging editorial in the New York Times, I caught up with Martin to get his take. He was a Republican in North Carolina before being Republican here was cool, which makes his outlook on a few issues surprising:

•  On legislative Republicans’ efforts to seize control of Charlotte’s airport:

“It smells and it’s just amazing that half of Charlotte’s and Mecklenburg County’s delegation is trying to take this thing away,” Martin said.

Somewhere along the line it became a partisan question. Martin rightly notes that “there should have been bipartisan opposition.”

Martin said he has written to backers of an independent airport authority telling them “they need to back off.” The city was blindsided, he said, and supporters still haven’t built a consensus that there are convincing, publicly vetted reasons to make a change.

The sense, Martin says, is that Republicans are trying to punish Charlotte Democrats, but the real motivations may still not be known. Charlotte Douglas is one of the nation’s most successful airports and while there are hints that the city recently tiptoed toward inappropriate meddling, the authority effort is an overreaction.

McCrory can’t veto the legislation because it is a so-called local bill. Martin doesn’t buy it.

“How is that a local bill? The governor ought to veto it. He ought to at least try,” he said. “He knows who built that airport. It wasn’t the state.”

•  On the legislature’s effort to pass new abortion restrictions:

McCrory’s health secretary, Aldona Wos, detailed last week some of the problems with abortion legislation lawmakers were considering.

“Wos is a gifted person with a strong sense of right and wrong, so I would tend to give her the benefit of the argument until they can sort it out,” Martin said. “For them to disregard and even flout the administration that has to deal with it is not very smart. And I don’t see a reason for it. ”

The House changed some aspects of the bill after Wos’s appearance, and McCrory said Friday he wouldn’t veto the new version. That’s breaking his campaign promise not to approve further abortion restrictions, which the bill still includes.

•  On Republicans’ governing and tax reform:

He dismissed the Times’ criticisms. “The Republicans got elected to be Republicans, and most of what they’re doing is true to that,” he said.

He hopes Republicans will finally pass tax reform. Martin said any package should cut personal and corporate income tax rates, apply sales tax more broadly but not to big nonprofits like Carolinas Healthcare (where he worked), and get rid of lucrative tax incentive packages to entice companies.

•  On how McCrory is playing his cards:

It’s clear to me that McCrory is still trying to find his footing with a legislature that wields almost all the power. Martin agreed, but said that’s unavoidable.

“If he dictates one side or the other, that will blow up on him,” Martin said. “He has to be in the game and be engaged, but he can’t be a dictator. Too many people have been there longer than he has and would resent it.”

Martin thinks McCrory has played the role of moderator between the Senate and House; on tax reform, abortion, the airport and other areas, McCrory helped throw the brakes on legislation that zipped through the Senate. McCrory has to figure out which battles to fight, always calculating where he has a chance to win.

“He’s trying to find his balance with the General Assembly. I’d give him a little more time,” Martin said. “I remember more than one newspaper criticized me for doing too much or not enough.”

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tbatten1
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