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Final airport authority vote expected Thursday; lawsuit may follow

RALEIGH Despite claims that it would create “chaos, confusion and uncertainty,” the N.C. Senate Wednesday tentatively approved a bill to create a new Charlotte airport authority – moving a day closer to a likely lawsuit.

Final passage of the bill is expected Thursday. Charlotte Douglas International Airport – in city hands for more than 70 years – would then transfer to the new authority.

That would almost certainly move the issue from the legislature to the courts, possibly this week.

It would be the latest move in the city’s six-month battle to keep the airport, a fight that has fueled charges of bad faith and a lack of trust on both sides.

That was evident before Wednesday’s 32-16 vote in a debate that involved two Mecklenburg County senators.

“It really is a good bill,” Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and bill sponsor, told the Senate. “This gives the Charlotte airport the best chance of growth for the future. It will provide certainty and nothing builds a better business climate than certainty.”

But Democratic Sen. Malcolm Graham criticized not only the bill but also the process.

“No one can answer a very simple question,” he said. “What’s wrong with the operation of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport that warrants a governance change? Why would we intentionally break something that’s working?…

“Here we are about to bring chaos, confusion and uncertainty to a $12 billion enterprise because, well, I don’t know why.”

Rucho suggested that the city had taken several steps, including stationing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police at the airport, that amounted to interference with airport operations.

“This administration under (former) Mayor (Anthony) Foxx decided they were going to micromanage,” he said.

Graham alluded to the bill’s swift passage through two Senate committees this spring: “Seventy-five years to build the airport by the citizens of Charlotte, and 55 minutes to take it away.”

He said Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte’s longtime mayor, “would be fit to be tied.”

“Governor,” he said, “I’m asking you to defend Charlotte Douglas International Airport today.”

McCrory has called the fight a local dispute but has recently encouraged the sides to compromise.

But efforts to compromise died earlier this week, when the city rejected GOP lawmakers’ plan to join a legislative study commission and lawmakers rejected a city plan to create a new Airport Commission.

Now, all signs point to litigation. A possible precedent happened just two months ago.

Legal precedent?

Legislators passed a bill that would shift control of Asheville’s water system, the Metropolitan Sewerage District, to a newly created board.

Upon passage of the bill, Asheville filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order. A Superior Court judge has so far blocked the transfer of governance. A hearing is set for next month to consider a permanent injunction.

Asheville’s case rests on three main points, according to the complaint.

The city contends that the transfer is prohibited by the state constitution, which prohibits local legislation on issues concerning “health and sanitation.” It’s unlikely that Charlotte’s lawsuit will be able to rely on the same prohibition.

But the Asheville lawsuit cites two other issues that would likely surface in Charlotte’s complaint.

Asheville has said the transfer would impair the city’s contracts with its bondholders. The city has also asked the state for “just compensation” for the taking of its water system. The Charlotte airport authority bill mentions possible compensation, though it doesn’t specify an amount.

As recently as this week, the state Treasurer’s office cited concerns with the legislation, “including the likelihood of litigation and uncertainty among bondholders.” Charlotte’s airport has roughly $800 million in outstanding bonds.

Until this week, the bill would have transferred the airport to an authority on Jan. 1. But now, the transfer takes place on passage.

Under the bill, the City Council and mayor would each have two appointments. Commissioners in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln and Union would each have one. Those 10 would select the 11th and final member.

The city’s Airport Advisory Committee would become the initial members of the authority. Appointments by the various governments would happen by Oct. 1.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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