Raleigh, N.C. — Charlotte would be able to use a set of local tourism taxes to pay for improvements to the Carolina Panther's privately-owned NFL stadium under a bill approved by the House Government Committee Thursday.
The measure passed on a voice vote after 30 minutes of debate, during which both Republicans and Democrats expressed doubts about the deal. It has to go to the House Finance Committee before getting a vote on the floor and heading over to the Senate.
"I just can't support this," said Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, saying it amounted to a public subsidy of a private enterprise.
On the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, said he also opposed the deal.
"We're playing a shell game is what we're doing," Cleveland said, calling the bill a clever attempt to hide the fact that taxpayers would be supporting the team. "The taxpayer dollars might be coming from the Charlotte area, but that's what we are doing."
The bill was drafted by a bipartisan group of Mecklenburg County lawmakers, including Republican Reps. Ruth Samuelson and Bill Brawley and Democratic Reps. Becky Carney and Beverly Earl.
It allows the city to reallocate hotel occupancy tax and food and beverage taxes originally levied for other purposes to Bank of America Stadium renovations. It does not allow for the use of any state tax dollars and does not allow the city to raise any of its local taxes above current rates. Those terms fall far short of the terms originally requested by the team and the city, but senior lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory said they would not approve a tax increase for the team.
"I will personally and publicly say I think their initial approach was a mistake," Samuelson said, adding, "This is not the year to do an increase in tax."
One curious feature of the tax deal is that any improvements the city pays for with public dollars would be owned by the city of Charlotte, despite the rest of the stadium being owned by a private company controlled by Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. The city owns the land under the stadium.
A major motivation for the deal, Samuelson said, would be to keep the team in Charlotte. Richardson is 76 years old, and NFL rules require the team to be sold to a new owner after his death. Already, she said, there has been interest from a Los Angeles ownership group interested in moving the team to California.
"There's not a tether holding the team to the Carolinas area," Samuelson said. Allowing the city to invest in upgrades would provide that legal connection, at least over the next decade or so.
The bill passed on a close voice vote, but nobody in the committee called for the ayes and nays.
Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, expressed reservations about the bill, saying that Charlotte already had enough public debt. But she said she would back the measure because it forced the city to choose among its various priorities.
Brown also added that she held some of the personal seat licenses used to finance the original construction of the stadium.
"I don't have a dog in the fight, even though I own PSLs," she said. "They haven't been very good lately."