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House passes airport authority bill, nears takeover

AIRPORT
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
US Airways jets are parked at the terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Tuesday, May 7, 2013. TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com/ Aboard NBC Charlotte's AirStar

RALEIGH After more than 70 years under city control, Charlotte’s airport could be taken over by a new authority as soon as this week under a bill passed Tuesday by the N.C. House.

But the city is expected to go to court to keep it.

The House passed the authority bill 75-39 after Republican sponsors rejected the city’s 11th-hour compromise proposal. It also approved an amendment that would create an authority on passage, not on Jan. 1 as in an earlier version.

“I’m disappointed in the House’s decision today to pass legislation that will throw our airport into chaos and instability,” Mayor Patsy Kinsey said. “For months now, we’ve tried to work with the leadership in Raleigh. They appear to have only one objective: to take the airport away from Charlotte and the citizens who built it, no matter what the cost.”

Attorneys are already believed to be preparing legal challenges. The Charlotte Chamber said Tuesday that it’s “most likely now that the city will challenge this legislation in court.”

In May, when legislators passed a bill that would transfer Asheville’s water system, the city went to court the same day. A Superior Court judge has blocked that transfer.

The authority bill goes to the Senate, where it requires two votes over two days, beginning Wednesday. Sen. Bob Rucho, the Senate sponsor, called the House version “a good compromise” with his original proposal.

But the bill reflects the failure of a compromise between the city and the state.

On Monday night Charlotte officials proposed an 11-member Airport Commission accountable to the mayor and council. In a memo to council and shared with delegation members, City Manager Ron Carlee said it would incorporate a consultant’s recommendations while avoiding “unintended consequences” of an authority.

“Acceptance of proposal would demonstrate that General Assembly is serious about improving airport operations and not merely making a power grab to take the airport from Charlotte,” Carlee wrote.

But Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and a sponsor of the legislation, said the proposed commission was vague and gave lawmakers no say in the airport’s future. She said lawmakers had offered to join the city in a study commission that would review airport governance and make recommendations next spring. The city refused.

“We offered a study on all the options … and we were turned down,” Samuelson told House lawmakers. “(The authority bill) is not ‘the Charlotte way,’ it’s not the ‘Ruth Samuelson way,’ but it’s the only way we’ve been left with.”

Bazookas vs. balloons

Kinsey acknowledged Tuesday that compromise talks hadn’t worked. She said she spoke with Samuelson Tuesday morning about the city’s offer.

“She just said it was too vague,” Kinsey said Samuelson told her. “She said, ‘Here we are, sitting up here with the bazookas, and y’all are down there with water balloons. And you’re sending us this?’ ”

Samuelson said later she was simply conveying what someone else had said.

Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte spoke on behalf of the city’s proposed commission. By supporting it, she said, lawmakers would demonstrate that the General Assembly is serious about protecting the airport and “not moving forward with a power grab.”

Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat, also tried to persuade his colleagues to reject the bill.

“We are on the verge of making a tremendous mistake,” he said. “Please do not throw the economic engine of the … region out with the bathwater. Do not cast us into the flames of a court fight.”

But GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, the lead sponsor of the legislation, said an authority independent of city politics would offer the best guarantee to keep Charlotte Douglas International Airport as a hub for US Airways and its new partner, American.

“If those planes start flying out of Nashville, your constituents would be harmed as much as mine would be,” he said on the floor.

The recent exchanges between city officials and Republican legislators has led to charges of bad faith.

Carlee said the legislature has been “consistent on their response to city overtures.”

“They say ‘No’ and then they move another version of an authority bill that no one has seen before voting on it,” he said in a statement.

Earlier Tuesday, Samuelson dismissed the city’s latest proposal, saying, “that’s not a good faith offer.”

“You don’t trust us,” she told a city lobbyist. “You want us to trust you.”

“I don’t quite understand why they feel that we’re not being honest or sincere,” said Kinsey. “It’s all in writing.”

Questions remain

Kinsey said Gov. Pat McCrory had spoken with her twice Sunday afternoon on the phone. She said the former Charlotte mayor asked what he could do to help with a compromise. “He was saying, ‘I really want to get this worked out, what can I do to help?’ ” she said. “I told him he could kill it, but he wouldn’t do that.”

Asked if McCrory is still working to help create a compromise, Kinsey said, “Whatever he’s doing obviously is behind the scenes, because I really don’t know.”

The latest version of the authority bill still leaves questions, including about $800 million in outstanding airport bonds.

“The Department of State Treasurer has repeatedly expressed strong reservations about the authority, including the likelihood of litigation and uncertainty among bond holders,” Treasurer’s spokesman Schorr Johnson said in a statement Tuesday.

Kinsey said Tuesday that Charlotte could sue the state if it creates an airport authority, but would prefer not to do so.

“Nothing is off the table,” she said. “I think the state wants to avoid it too ...We just don’t want to go there. We don’t want to do anything to harm our airport.”

In a statement Tuesday, the Charlotte Chamber said compromise efforts have failed because, “in the end the gulf of mistrust that exists between the city and state is too great.”

Carney blamed growing bad blood for the apparent stalemate.

“Personality conflicts and trust issues between the city and the state are getting in the way of a reasonable compromise,” she said Tuesday morning. “Perhaps the sponsors could keep the bill alive by holding the bill until (next year’s) short session. Let the city move forward with their proposal and reassess next year.”

Kinsey said she told Samuelson that if the legislature gave the city a year to try its proposal, they could always re-evaluate how the airport was run in the future.

“We know you can shoot us down anytime. If we don’t fulfill our commitment to this, you can steal our airport next year,” Kinsey said she told Samuelson. “I didn’t put it like that ...I don’t know what else to say.” Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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