Airport authority bill back on fast track

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comJuly 10, 2013 

— A bill to transfer control of Charlotte’s airport to an independent authority is back on the fast track after city officials rejected an offer to join lawmakers in a study commission.

A new version of the authority bill is expected to pass the House Finance Committee Wednesday morning and could face a vote by the full House as early as Thursday.

The latest House version represents the failure of a last-ditch effort supported by Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis to bring the sides together.

“We came very close, but unfortunately it didn’t work,” said Ned Curran, a Charlotte businessman who acted as a behind-the-scenes mediator.

A final version of the new bill wasn’t available Tuesday afternoon. But one GOP co-sponsor said it would call for an 11-member authority appointed from the Charlotte area, which would include surrounding counties, with no appointments from state officials as in previous versions.

If the House version is approved by the Senate, the bill would become law without the governor’s signature. It would take effect Jan. 1. The Senate could act as soon as next week.

The city, which has run Charlotte Douglas International Airport for more than 70 years, has fought an authority since legislation was introduced earlier this year. After an authority bill passed the Senate, it slowed in the House. Nudged by McCrory and Tillis, GOP lawmakers proposed a joint study. They said all governance options were on the table.

“We tried to work with them,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and bill sponsor. “I’m completely at a loss for why they turned down this study.”

But city officials questioned the balance of the study commission. The House and Senate would have appointed two-thirds of the 12 members. The city would have appointed the other third.

“The bill itself was pre-determined toward an authority,” Mayor Patsy Kinsey said Tuesday. “It had ‘authority’ written all over it.”

Added City Manager Ron Carlee, “When we do the math, it’s 8-4.”

Commission stacked?

But others say the study commission wasn’t stacked against the city.

Of the eight members who were to be named by legislative Republicans, for example, two would have been Democrats, potentially sympathetic to the Democratic-controlled city. The city’s four members all presumably would have been in favor of continued city management of the airport.

The panel would have been co-chaired by a city appointee and a legislative appointee.

“Saying the commission structure would be imbalanced would not be a fair statement,” said Curran, president and CEO of Bissell Cos., who worked on the proposal.

“We just disagree on that,” Kinsey said.

Rep. Becky Carney, a Charlotte Democrat, said she’s “disappointed” the city chose not to participate in the study, which would have pushed off a decision on the airport until next summer.

“Now we’re back to where we started,” she said Tuesday. “Nothing was pre-determined. What did the city have to lose by participating? Now it’s like it or leave it.”

Carlee said an ongoing study, led by Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble, should address issues raised by legislators as well as a city-hired consultant who concluded an authority may be the best long-term solution for airport management.

The city study is reviewing issues including airport finance and security and employee benefits. Carlee has said the study is designed “to make improvements that will benefit (the airport) and its customers.”

Combined with the rejection of the joint study, that rubbed some legislators the wrong way.

“They didn’t want us on the platform with them,” Samuelson said. “They wanted us in the audience.”

Carlee said it appears lawmakers have wanted an authority from the beginning.

“If they run the authority bill (Wednesday), that shows they’re clearly pre-disposed toward an authority,” he said. “That confirms the fear council members were expressing about the (study) commission.”

Soured relations

The failure of the study commission further sours the relationship between the city and General Assembly, which has been marred this year by fights over the airport and a mutual lack of trust.

“They were going to be equal members of the commission at the table with votes,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican and sponsor of the authority bill. “And they would have a chairmanship that was unique, and they would never have that opportunity again.”

Added Samuelson: “They shut the door on that pretty firmly.”

Kinsey said she’s offered to come to Raleigh and make the city’s case. Curran said the joint study commission may have represented the best chance to reach a consensus on the airport.

“We have far more common interests than we have differences in philosophy,” he said. “We would all like a stronger airport. The difference is simply, ‘How do we get there?’ And the study commission was all about everybody getting in the same room and trying to do it in ‘the Charlotte way.’ ”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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