RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) -- A legislative proposal that could pay for most — but not all — renovations to the Carolina Panthers' stadium cleared its first hurdle in the North Carolina General Assembly on Thursday.
The House Government Committee recommended a bill that would give more latitude to the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to spend existing hotel and prepared food and beverage taxes toward upgrades that the National Football League team wants at the privately-owned Bank of America Stadium.
The master plan calls for $261 million to $297 million in upgrades to the stadium, which the team wants performed after the 2013 season. City leaders, worried that failing to help with improvements could jeopardize Charlotte's standing as an NFL city, asked lawmakers to let them raise the prepared food and beverage tax to 2 percent from 1 percent to pay for them.
But Republican leaders said no and don't plan to provide state funding, either. Thursday's bipartisan bill won't pay for all of the renovations but is the best state lawmakers can do, according to Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, a chief sponsor.
"We thought it was way better than increasing taxes or doing nothing and really increase the odds that the Panthers would leave," Samuelson told the committee.
The measure tells Charlotte-area leaders that revenues from a current 3 percent occupancy tax and a food and beverage levy originally earmarked to pay for the Charlotte Convention Center could now go to stadium renovations and building amateur sports facilities in Charlotte.
The proposal would generate $34 million less than the team sought from the city.
Samuelson said any renovations in the stadium would be owned by the city, serving as a potential obstacle to any move by future owners. Current owner and heart transplant recipient Jerry Richardson, 76, has said he won't move the Panthers, but city and state officials fear a successor eventually could.
"It gives the city a tether to the team, and it gives them an ownership interest in the stadium that they currently do not have," she said.
The committee approved the bill on a voice vote before sending it to another committee. Samuelson said the bill could be on the floor next week and believes she has support for the legislation in the Senate. Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, wouldn't be asked to sign the bill because it's considered a local issue.
The bill received several "no" votes from members of both parties who don't like the idea of using taxpayer money of any kind to help a for-profit venture. Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, likened it to "corporate welfare" when "we're doing so many other cuts to the average citizens of this state right now."
"The perception in the public is we're giving them taxpayer dollars," added Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow.
The stadium that Richardson built in 1996 with the help of revenues from personal seat licenses is considered middle-aged by NFL standards. Rep. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, who lives a block away from Bank of America Stadium, said the 74,000-seat structure and the team have attracted restaurants and other businesses downtown.
The Panthers organization estimates the team generates $636 million in economic impact and nearly 5,000 jobs for the region annually, according to a Charlotte city document.
"These are huge consequences of the team leaving North Carolina," said Earle, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Team spokesman Charlie Dayton wrote by email after the vote that the Panthers "continue to appreciate the efforts and support from the elected leadership in this ongoing process." The officials, he added, understand the team's economic impact and its contributions to local and state tax base.
Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, said she owns three PSLs at Bank of America Stadium. She'd prefer that the Panthers not leave but she's fine to force Charlotte to prioritize projects based on current tax revenues.
"I have no problem with them having to choose alternatives, like each and every single one of us in our homes have to do every single day," she said.