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It'll Never Fly Wilbur, Or How Leppert's Airport Money Grab Was Shot Down.

This is a story about Tom Leppert, our mayor and a $27-million-dollar stickup he tried to pull out at the airport last week, but it's also about Jim Schutze winning the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Believe it.

Last week Leppert tried to get the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to give the city $27 million in money that was not the city's money. The city didn't have it coming.

In fact, the airport would have committed a federal crime by giving the money to Leppert, but he wanted it anyway.

The airport, the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration all reacted to Leppert's maneuver with a response I can only summarize as, "Call 911!"

They shut it down in a hurry. Leppert went home empty-pocketed. When I called his spokesperson for comment later, I was told: "We don't have anything to add. It's a moot point."

Getting caught doesn't make it moot in my book, but that's not the real reason I want to write about this saga. The real reason is so that I can introduce a law of economics I have invented, for which I think one day I may win a Pulitzer Prize, possibly the Nobel, if I can just get it out there under my name.

It's a very complex principle—extremely arcane and academic but a major, major breakthrough. My economic principle is the law of "My TV Set, Your TV Set."

Let's say I have a really nice TV set—the biggest, flattest, most high-def digital-audio fantasmagastic TV set ever manufactured. And you have a little Chinese cheapo TV set that sucks.

You love my TV set. My TV set is the TV set of your dreams. But you can't have my TV set. Know why?

It's my TV set.

I am convinced that the rule of My TV Set, Your TV Set (copyrighted by Jim Schutze) is at the heart of most of the dislocation, violence, unhappiness and even tragedy of our world. An excellent indication of how hard it is for people to grasp it is this: Our mayor, who attended Harvard and was a White House fellow, went out to the airport last week and tried to walk off with their TV set.

In January, the airport sold land to the state for a new highway and got $42,151,877 in return. Leppert wanted the airport to give that money to the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth. Dallas' share would have been about $27 million and Fort Worth's about $15 million. He introduced a special resolution to a special called meeting of the airport board, of which he is a member, telling the FAA that the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth "should be allowed to retain the proceeds from the sale of airport right-of-way to the Texas Department of Transportation and should be allowed to use such proceeds for non-airport purposes."

Uh, no. Every time D/FW Airport gets a federal grant, it signs a covenant containing certain terms to which it agrees in order to get the money. In addition to those covenants, overarching federal law also governs federally supported airports.

One of the big underlying principles both in the grant agreements and in federal aviation law is that federally supported airports cannot engage in what is called "diversion of revenue." They cannot, by federal law, take money they make by operating the airport or selling off parts of it and give that money to local units of government.

I'm trying to figure out how Leppert and the Dallas city attorney missed that one. I went out to the airport for the board meeting. I got kicked out right away, of course. Executive session. But I did see Dallas City Attorney Tom Perkins there. In fact I shook his hand on my way to being kicked out. But now I can't get Perkins to call me back.

Personally, I found that the "no diversion" law was nowhere near as hard to dig up or understand as the law of My TV Set, Your TV Set. I found the No Diversion of Revenue principle in 20 minutes on Google.

I also called up the FAA, using the older, more primitive technology known as "My Telephone."

When I asked the FAA for its position on giving the land-sale money to Leppert, Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the FAA in Fort Worth, gave me one of the more unequivocal answers I believe I have ever received from a federal agency. He said that the FAA had not yet received such a request from anyone at the airport, but should such a request arrive at the agency, "The answer would be no."

I was taken aback. I'm not even used to hearing that word. Just two letters? N-O? So bald, so blunt. Usually it's something more like, "Such a request would be viewed with concern." Just, "No?"

 

"No," he said.

He explained to me that the airport was not even legally able to sell the land to the state in the first place without seeking prior approval from the FAA. Before granting that approval, the FAA had required the airport to sign a covenant in which it promised that it remembered, once again, that none of the money from the sale could be diverted to other units of local government.

"For the airport to even be able to sell that land," Lunsford said, "they had to ensure the FAA that the money would go into the (airport) general fund before we approved the release of that land."

You might ask what's wrong with the airport sharing some of its loot with the cities. The cities, after all, are hurting. They need money.

Ah, but that's the problem. It's sort of like, "Why can't a guy who's rich give everybody 50 bucks?" Because then he will be poor. (Hey, I may put that into a new law of economics, too.)

In my Googling of this question I found a number of instances around the country in which hard-pressed local units of government have tried to pull TV-set raids on their airports. It's not as if Mayor Leppert was the first to come up with this idea.

The federal laws and agreements against revenue diversion are clearly aimed at protecting airports all over the nation from being plucked featherless and dumped into a hobo stewpot every time cash-strapped local governments cast hungry eyes.

Also, it's not as if the airport hasn't already paid its true debt to Dallas. Dallas and Fort Worth have raised money with bond issues and have lent it to the airport in the past, creating a kind of mortgage that the airport needed to pay. But it did pay.

A couple years ago when the airport came into a windfall from gas-drilling revenues, it still owed Dallas and Fort Worth $19 million. That was money the mayor of Dallas could quite legitimately think of as "my TV set." It was owed to him.

And in fact the first $19 million of that money was paid to Fort Worth and Dallas in order to pay off the mortgage. There was some talk at the time about whether paying that money to the cities was revenue diversion, and the airport and the FAA both agreed it was not. It was money owed. Any way the airport could pay off its mortgage was good.

Which brings us back full-circle to the money from this year's big land sale. If it was OK for the airport to share the money from the gas sale with the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, why not the money from the land sale?

Because the airport doesn't owe the city any money any more. It's not the cities' TV set. That's the airport's TV set.

Why can't the cities have the airport's TV set if the cities really badly want it and the cities really badly need a TV set? Because it's not the cities' TV set.

I am telling you. I have got a lock on the Nobel with this thing. I can see myself now being introduced at cocktail parties at Harvard. Maybe the mayor will even be there. Jim Schutze. Inventor of the Law of My TV Set, Your TV Set. I'll even be on Oprah.

There is yet another wrinkle to this. At the end of every year when the airport has spent all of its money on operations and maintenance and construction, if it's still in the red (which it always is) then the airlines have to pony up the difference in landing fees.

Needless to say, the airlines don't want the airport giving away money to its cousins that it's not supposed to give away and then trying to make up the difference by jacking up the landing fees.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said to me, "In good times and bad, the FAA has been pretty clear that airports can't divert revenue to the cities."

Of course everything that happened in the secret executive session of the Dallas Fort Worth Airport Board was a secret, and I was totally locked out, and so I can't know a word of it. But my guess, just based on dreams or something, is that Leppert went in there thinking he had Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief in his pocket.

I think I dreamed that Moncrief said, "Tom, the lawyers tell me this just isn't our TV set." I do know for a fact they adjourned without taking any action at all, sparing Leppert an ignominious defeat, except that he didn't get the TV set.

 

I also have no idea what Leppert's motivation might have been in all this, since he won't talk to me, but in another dream or maybe from a mysterious voice coming out of an air-conditioning duct or something, I believe I heard that Leppert is desperate to raise money for the city "because the minorities on the council are talking tax hike."

Oh. Well, I do get that. I do. He wants to run for the U.S. Senate as a Republican. He can't do that if he's the mayor who allowed a tax hike to get passed. He needs to show the minority members of the council that he's doing everything he can to find money for them, short of a tax hike. It all makes perfect sense.

So it would have been really good for him if he had been able to come back to City Hall and say, "Man, look at this fine TV set I got you!"

I rest my case. I want the Nobel on this.


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