State Legislatures

The Republican Power Grab in North Carolina


President Obama, with Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), center, and Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, left, waves upon his arrival at Asheville Regional Airport in 2011

Photograph by Chuck Burton/AP Photo

President Obama, with Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), center, and Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, left, waves upon his arrival at Asheville Regional Airport in 2011

It’s not often that 250 people pack in to see the city council in Asheville, N.C., in the middle of a workday. Yet there they were on the afternoon of April 3, when the city’s elected officials met with citizens to discuss a plan by the Republican-led General Assembly in Raleigh to take control of the city’s water systems. The lawmakers want to hand it over to a new multi-county board that would be appointed largely by the state legislature. Asheville wouldn’t be compensated for lost revenue from water bills, leaving the city of 84,000 with a $3 million shortfall that would force cuts to city services.

The mostly Democratic voters in the audience vowed to stop the bill from becoming law. But that’s not likely to happen. For two years, Democrats who run the largest city in Western North Carolina have been losing to Republicans in the Capitol. In 2012, the legislature stripped the city’s control of Asheville Regional Airport and is currently in the process of appropriating the land. Lawmakers created an independent state agency to run the airport, saying it would provide better service. “We can’t find a valid reason for the taking,” says Asheville’s Democratic Mayor Terry Bellamy. “They have accused us of mismanaging money, but they have no data to back that up.” She points out that the city’s bond rating rose from AA to AA+ in 2010. “Every city in the state should be watching what’s happening in Asheville and supporting us,” she says, “because they could be next.”

Since January, Republicans in the General Assembly have introduced a series of bills that would curtail the ability of Democratic-led cities and urban counties to govern themselves. GOP legislators say Charlotte’s City Council can no longer be trusted to manage Charlotte Douglas International Airport, a major hub. They want an appointed regional authority to run it. “The Charlotte Airport has become a multibillion-dollar effort,” says State Senator Bob Rucho, the bill’s main sponsor. “We’re concerned and want to be sure you have the best minds and most experienced individuals in place to move that forward to get the most economic value derived from it.”

Rucho has cited a variety of reasons for the takeover. He accused Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, now President Obama’s nominee for U.S. Transportation secretary, of planning to divert airport revenue to fund pet projects (not true, Foxx says). He said security costs are up and the airport needs new leadership when its longtime director retires.

State lawmakers also nullified a lease that let Raleigh use state property for a park and enacted changes limiting cities’ ability to annex land. Another bill would take away control of school buildings and construction from the Wake County Board of Education, which oversees schools in Raleigh and surrounding areas, and give it to county commissioners. “No one has come out to say specifically ‘this is political revenge against Democratic strongholds,’ ” says David Swindell, who teaches public policy at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “But these changes amount to an unprecedented attack on the state’s cities, which happen to be home to many of the state’s Democrats.”

There’s not much cities can do to stop the lawmakers. The state constitution grants the legislators broad powers to intervene in city affairs without the approval of the governor, as long as the changes don’t affect more than 15 percent of the counties in the state. Historically the legislature gave local governments wide latitude in controlling their own affairs. That’s changed since 2010, when Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. GOP Governor Pat McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor who took office this year, has conspicuously kept his distance from what’s happening in his hometown. “The governor has stayed out of it because it’s a local matter that doesn’t require the governor’s signature,” says his communications director, Kim Genardo.

At least one Republican lawmaker has openly expressed a desire to dilute the power of mayors. “There is a definite feeling that cities have too much power and want to control everything,” State Senator Tom Apodaca told the Charlotte Observer. Mayor Foxx says there’s a certain irony in watching conservative Republicans argue against local control. “I think the legislature would be concerned if the feds started dictating to them,” he says. “Yet they’re doing to us what they claim they dislike.”

The bottom line: North Carolina’s GOP legislature is seeking to use its constitutional authority to strip power from elected officials.

Newsome is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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