ATLANTA -- Acting on the last day of North Carolina's 1991 legislative session, lawmakers yesterday approved a bill creating an airport authority that could eventually issue over $600 million of bonds for a giant cargo facility.

The North Carolina Air Cargo Airport Authority Act, which was strongly supported by Gov. James Martin, was passed after Senate and House conferees ironed out some minor differences, according to Ernest Pearson, the state's assistant secretary for economic development.

He said the new authority was granted the power to sell revenue bonds. If approved by legislative authorization, he added, it also could sell general obligation debt. The state treasurer will oversee all bond sales, he said.

"We think this legislation is really quite historic," Mr. Pearson said. "We will soon build what is equivalent to the first interstate highway for air cargo. North Carolina will be at the center of providing services in this area."

The state official said the authority would be overseen by a board of directors with 13 members, seven of whom would be appointed by Gov. Martin, three appointed by the House Speaker Daniel Blue, D-Raleigh, and three appointed by the president pro tem of the Senate, Henson F. Barnes, D-Goldsboro.

Under the current plan, the authority would develop an air cargo site about 20,000 acres in size, including an industrial cargo complex served by two runways.

Mr. Pearson said the facility could cost over $600 million, including $533 million for building and the remainder for land. He added that if the Federal Aviation Administration declares it eligible for federal funding, the state could receive up to $400 million in aid for the project.

He also said the facility could bring in more than $1 billion in investment and 55,000 jobs in the first two years of construction, according to consultant reports.

As for a time frame, he said, "We could start acquiring land by the second quarter of next year and finish building as early as 1996."

The speaker of the House stands behind the project.

"The speaker is supportive of the concept and looks foward to working with the authority," Rep. Blue's spokesman, Chris Fitzsimon, said yesterday.

Mr. Fitzsimon said the bill granted the authority about $30 million in start-up funding.

Approval of the new airport authority followed final passage on Saturday of the state's $7.8 billion budget.

The budget plan was adopted after an agreement was reached last Wednesday on steps needed to close an anticipated $1.2 billion deficit in fiscal 1992. The plan calls for $657 million in tax increases and $653 million in cuts.

At the center of the budget agreement is a 1-cent increase in North Carolina's sales tax to 6%, raising $450 million annually. Lawmakers also agreed to lift corporate and individual taxes to 7.75% from the current 7% level, bringing in an extra $136 million a year. Taxes on cigarettes also will be increased to five cents from two cents, generating $21 million.

In addition, lawmakers imposed a variety of other charges to state residents, including tuition increases at state universities, to bring in $30 million, and special increases in taxes on sales of boats, planes, and mixed drinks, which will raise about $5 million.

An aide to Sen. Barnes said the legislature was also nearing approval yesterday afternoon of $45 million of so-called "two-thirds" bonds, with proceeds used to fund various building projects involving educational facilities, state office buildings, and parks. These bonds can be sold without the voter approval generally required for general obligation debt under a North Carolina law that limits such issuance to two-thirds of the amount of debt reduction achieved in the previous fiscal year.

Lawmakers also cleared the way for sale of $112.5 million of GO bonds for prisons. A total of $200 million og GO bonds for prisons were approved by voters last November. However, legislative approval must also be obtained for the bonds to be sold.

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