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Photo: Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. WSB-TV

Delta’s NRA move could put airline tax break in Georgia at risk 

Some conservatives say the airline’s decision should ground a lucrative sales tax exemption on jet fuel

Delta’s decision to sever marketing ties with the National Rifle Association on Saturday sparked outrage from Georgia conservatives who urged state lawmakers to defy the Atlanta-based airline’s push for a multimillion dollar fuel tax break. 

Several conservative groups seized on the airline’s decision to end a discount for NRA members to rally members against the measure. And former state Sen. Rick Jeffares, a candidate for lieutenant governor, urged his Republican colleagues to reject it. 

“If Delta is so flush that they don’t need NRA members hard-earned travel dollars,” said Jeffares, “it can certainly do without the $40 million tax break they are asking Georgia taxpayers for.”

The airline’s decision came as several blue-chip companies broke ties with the gun rights group amid debate over firearms restrictions in the wake of the mass shooting at a Florida high school this month. 

The NRA called the corporate retreat a “shameful display of political and civic cowardice” and said it wouldn’t distract the group from its mission. 

It’s difficult timing for Delta in its home state, where the airline is on a mission to restore a lucrative sales tax exemption on jet fuel that was first adopted in the mid-2000s when the company was in financial distress. 

Critics called it a special-interest tax giveaway after the company recovered to post record-breaking profits. It was done away with in 2015 when Delta officials got on the wrong side of lawmakers looking for extra cash for infrastructure improvements. 

The tax break came roaring back this year after the airline hired David Werner, Gov. Nathan Deal’s former executive counsel, as its top state lobbyist. 

This year, it has been pitched to lawmakers as an “airline tax break” rather than one that would exclusively help Delta. The jet fuel provision would save airlines and cargo firms more than $50 million, but the biggest beneficiary would be Delta. 

Advocates say it would help Atlanta compete for flights with other hub airports where jet fuel taxes aren’t charged. And it quickly gained traction in the statehouse.

The governor praised it at a press conference and included the provision in a broader measure to slash the state income tax. That proposal easily passed the House last week and is pending in the Senate. 

As word of Delta’s decision reverberated among Georgia Republicans, some conservatives ratcheted up pressure on the Senate to block the proposal. 

Jason Shepherd, the Cobb GOP chair, questioned why lawmakers are considering a tax break if “Delta does not respect the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” The Atlanta Tea Party sent members a plea to “stand up for the Second Amendment” and call Deal’s office.

And state Sen. Michael Williams, a Republican candidate for governor who has long opposed the Delta tax break, called it proof that lawmakers “do the bidding of lobbyists.”

“Delta isn’t even worried about insulting a huge portion of voters who belong to the NRA,” said Williams, who on Friday tried to strip the jet fuel provision from the broader tax-cut bill. “They have their backroom deal in place & know the politicians can’t survive without their donations.”

Delta quickly took to the defensive. Werner tweeted that the company’s announcement “was not a political statement” and that the airline “merely confirmed its neutral status on a politically and emotionally charged debate by removing its name from the debate.”

Deal’s administration, meanwhile, signaled it continued to support the airline tax break.

Chris Riley, the governor’s top aide, said he and Deal “are assuming this decision was made by Delta to end their contract with all political groups in order to remain neutral.” 

“Otherwise,” he added, “members may not trust our word moving forward!”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.