Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Chris Riley, Gov. Nathan Deal's chief of staff, confer in the Senate on the Delta/NRA flap. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM Bob Andres/
Photo: Bob Andres/
Photo: Bob Andres/

Delta, the NRA, and Casey Cagle: His very good week may come with a cost

There exists the strong possibility that we will look back on this as the week that Casey Cagle won the Republican nomination for governor and perhaps — unless Democrats can break a 16-year streak of bad luck — the job itself.

We may also find ourselves noting the steep price of this good fortune: A set of tire tracks on the back of Gov. Nathan Deal, and seeds of doubts — sown within Georgia’s business community —about Cagle’s reliability as a partner.

Never mind that contest for a second headquarters that promises a $5 billion investment and up to 50,000 jobs.

A single Tweet made Cagle, for at least a few days, the most famous lieutenant governor in the world: “I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

Once you’re a hero on “Fox & Friends,” odds are you’ve got a pretty good chance in a Georgia GOP primary.

Going into the 2018 session of the Legislature, Cagle’s chief weakness as a gubernatorial candidate was a lack of enthusiasm among social conservatives. That has now been addressed.

Earlier this session and over Deal’s objections, Cagle insisted on including, in a major rewrite of the state’s adoption laws, a measure the governor had vetoed the year before. The amendment will help a child placement agency, underwritten by a major GOP donor, establish a private, church-based foster care system.

An amendment to bestow the state’s blessing on child placement agencies that refuse to engage with same-sex couples was stripped away from the adoption bill, that’s true. But it lives on in new, separate legislation. SB 375 has cleared Cagle’s Senate and is now raising dust in the House.

But the piece de resistance for Cagle was HB 918, which for the first time lowers the state income tax (by .25 percent). With his Tweeted encouragement, the senators over whom Cagle presides stripped a $50 million-a-year sales tax break on jet fuel from the bill — six days after Delta Air Lines, amid the fierce debate over the strangely American phenomenon of school massacres, ended its relationship with the National Rifle Association.

Opinion: Cagle answers attacks on conservatives, re: Delta Air Lines

In one fell swoop, the bill, which received final legislative passage on Thursday, pleases those who dislike the income tax, love the Second Amendment, and are suspicious of big business — i.e., your most enthusiastic Georgia GOP primary voters.

Strangers to Georgia politics might question the very concept of GOP hostility to business. I would point them to a 2016 discussion I witnessed. The topic was a proposed tax break to lure musicians to Georgia — just as earlier tax breaks had brought the film and TV industry here.

In that briefing, state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a very conservative Republican from Douglas, Ga., questioned the wisdom of “using tax dollars to incentivize industries for people that will turn around and oppose those very same pro-faith, pro-family policies that we support.”

For this reason and others, Republicans in the General Assembly were unenthusiastic about reinstatement of a tax break on jet fuel for Delta. (It had been eliminated in 2015.)

HB 918 was a classic length of state Capitol sausage — a handshake deal involving Deal, Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston. The governor would get the jet fuel tax exemption, which he contends is necessary to keep Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport competitive. GOP lawmakers would get the income tax reduction that they wanted, but which a more cautious Deal had resisted.

With his Tweet at 2 p.m. on Monday, Cagle unilaterally declared that deal to be null and void. In video carried around the world, the lieutenant governor argued that he had been provoked. And Governor Deal didn’t wholly disagree when, in a press conference, he acknowledged he would sign HB 918 once it reached his desk — without the Delta tax break.

Deal’s quick caving was intended to get the issue off the front pages of national newspapers and off the radar of late-night talk shows. His promise to pursue the jet fuel tax break might be read as a message to — that commitments made in the Capitol are something to be respected.

Nonetheless, an obviously ticked-off governor said the legislation had been “put at risk by the types of antics that tend to plague election years.” His chief of staff had expressed a similar sentiment in January, warning GOP candidates for governor that they should campaign as they intend to govern.

Plenty of Republicans will accuse Deal of hypocrisy, of forgetting that he, too, once had to run the gauntlet of a Republican primary, which can transform otherwise thoughtful candidates into something quite different.

“That’s a hard lesson for some people to learn. It was a hard lesson for me to learn,” Deal confessed. “Sometimes you get caught up in the heat of the moment and the context of a political campaign, and people are urging you to take positions and say things that — if you had really thought about them a little longer, you might not have said and you might not have done.”

In 2010, toward the end of a bitter Republican runoff, gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal accused rival Karen Handel of past support of domestic partnership benefits for gay couples, and of giving taxpayer funds to a group that “promotes homosexuality among teenagers as young as 13.”

At the time, Deal was roundly condemned for creating a poor climate for economic development. Yet as governor, he vetoed one “religious liberty” bill in 2016. And may get another opportunity this year.

But there is one difference between Deal then and Cagle now. When Deal mounted his anti-gay high horse, he was a retired congressman.

When Cagle promised to kill a tax break for a company that crossed the NRA, he was working at his job in the state Capitol. For better or worse, that makes his example a better measurement of how he’s likely to govern, should he be offered the four-year lease on that property on West Paces Ferry Road.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.

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