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Opinion

Hands off Charlotte airport
State oversteps bounds with authority bill
 
Published Friday, September 6, 2013 8:00 am
by N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham

From N.C. Sen. Malcolm Graham

 

Gov. Pat McCrory recently said that the airport power grab never would have happened when he was mayor.

He’s right. 

When he was mayor, local legislators from both parties worked together for the good of Mecklenburg County. When he was mayor, the legislature didn’t have an agenda of taking away assets and power from local communities. And when he was mayor, we believed in something called “the Charlotte way.” 

It meant inviting everyone to the table to solve problems.

Historically, the Mecklenburg county legislative delegation always worked together to do what was best for our area. We got the transit tax approved. We helped Charlotte get the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And we passed the Arts and Culture facility plan, the Convention Center ballroom expansion and the I-277 interchange modification for the 19-story NASCAR office tower. Even when we disagreed, we worked to find consensus to serve the best interests of the folks at home. 

This session should have been a great year for Mecklenburg, with a governor who was a former Charlotte mayor and the speaker of the house, GOP Rep. Thom Tillis, also hailing from Mecklenburg. 

But something changed. 

The problems started at our first delegation meeting, when the Republicans tried to challenge my seat as chairman. The chair has little to no responsibility other than turning on the lights and reserving the meeting space, and we’ve always simply taken turns fulfilling the role. But they wanted it to be a shared responsibility because of the makeup of the General Assembly.  

Then we butted heads over the streetcar. I was disappointed when Gov. McCrory threatened to pull state funding for the light-rail Blue Line extension if the city moved forward with its streetcar plan. The governor was interfering in what was clearly a local decision, and I couldn’t believe the state would consider reneging on its commitment. Unfortunately, my Republican colleagues did not help defend our city and its right to make its own decisions. 

Finally, of course, came the airport debacle. Traditionally, when local lawmakers have a bill that will impact Mecklenburg, they share it with the rest of the delegation. It’s a chance for us to ask questions and give input. But with the airport, we got no heads up on the bill to transfer ownership from the city to an independent authority. The bill’s Senate sponsor never even came to our meetings. 

So it was no wonder that we felt blind-sided. No one explained the bill’s purpose, or why it was being rammed through with such urgency. The main concern voiced by those in favor of an authority was that the City Council would use airport funds for city services, which is against FAA regulations. Yet the new authority could have used those same funds to support airports within the region that had not invested a single dime to build the airport. 

The airport, run by the city since 1935, had earned respect as one of the most well-run airports in the country. Why make a change?  This was a solution looking for a problem.

In February, shortly after the bill was introduced, I wrote to Gov. McCrory. I asked him to urge his comrades in the legislature to work toward a compromise. Yet he waited until late July to try negotiating a deal. His involvement was too little, too late. He failed the citizens of Charlotte. 

Three GOP state lawmakers also “tried” to find a compromise by meeting with Charlotte City Council members. Legislative Democrats weren’t included in those discussions, even though the City Council is made up mostly of Democrats. We’re the ones who have personal relationships with council members.  If the GOP lawmakers had really wanted to find a bi-partisan solution, they should have included members of both parties. 

Some business leaders, too, have failed to have the kind of open and honest dialogue that was once a hallmark of the “Charlotte way.”  For months, US Airways officials said they had no opinion on the legislature’s attempt to remove the airport from city control. In April, however, we learned that an airline executive had forwarded draft legislation to create the airport authority in an email. Finally, US Airways acknowledged its involvement.

Now it looks like the FAA will determine who controls the airport, and the future of one of the city’s most valuable assets remains up in the air. 

It may be too late to find consensus on the airport. But for the good of the city and the region, we must return to the Charlotte way. That means talking about issues early, before there’s a crisis. That means being up-front and honest, even with those who might disagree. That means inviting all stakeholders to the table for open dialogue about how to solve problems. 

Moving forward, we need to put our differences behind us and once again, work together for what is best for Charlotte. 

N.C. Sen. MALCOLM GRAHAM of Charlotte is chairman of the Mecklenburg County Legislative Delegation.

 

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