The first rule of economic development, former Gov. Roy Barnes has often said, is to stay off the front page of the New York Times. If you’re looking for a place to make a good impression, that isn’t it.
On Tuesday, Georgia made a complete hash of the Barnes rule.
Like news outlets across the globe, the nation’s largest newspaper carried a fulsome account of the Republican vows made in our state Capitol to deep-six a generous tax credit for Delta and other airlines.
Not because tax credits are wrong, but as punishment for the hometown company’s decision to put some air between itself and the National Rifle Association. Delta made its announcement in a bland weekend Twitter message that now carries a street value of $40 million or more annually.
“I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA,” promised Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who wants to be governor, in his own Tweet.
House Speaker David Ralston, who has a primary opponent again this May, didn’t mention Delta by name, but accused “certain corporations” of “vilifying” supporters of the Second Amendment. (Delta’s claim of “neutral status” in a bitter debate over gun violence hardly qualifies as slander.)
Back in January, when the Legislature first convened, most everyone promised to stay on their good behavior, for the sake of the state’s decision to compete for a second Amazon.com headquarters that promises 50,000 jobs.
The session is now poised to become a triumph of largely symbolic cultural markers over genuine self-interest. That’s hardly a new thing in the South, but if you’re a business in Atlanta with national or international ambitions, the pattern has become frustrating.
We’ll let Larry Gellerstedt speak for a large portion of metro Atlanta’s business leadership.
“It’s very disturbing for me to see people on the political side that talk about economic growth and jobs being what they’re about, and at the same time being anti-business in terms of their actions,” said Gellerstedt, who is the board chairman and CEO of Cousins Properties, and quite familiar with Georgia’s Amazon.com HQ2 project.
The last five sessions have been marked by arguments over immigration, over guns, and over “religious liberty” legislation to permit businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
This year, a measure to permit adoption agencies to refuse to do business with same-sex couples was stripped from a general bill earlier this year, but lives on in a separate Senate measure.
Even if beaten back, at some point, the annual confrontations must be figured into the general business climate that Atlanta is attempting to sell. Constant debate translates into constant risk, Gellerstedt said.
“I remain very, very concerned about playing politics with issues that — this is sort of like playing roulette with jobs,” the Cousins CEO said.
The targeting of Delta, which Gellerstedt finds particularly worrisome, is a matter of both marketing culture and simple mathematics.
That Delta thought it necessary to separate itself from the NRA is hardly a surprise. Airlines are about reliability and on-time service. They do not do dystopia. “Building a better airline” works as a Delta motto.
“We are the only thing that stands between you and the chaos of European socialism” does not.
Then there is the math. Delta reportedly had a 21 percent share of airline traffic in 2017. Republicans here rule with a different percentage: Roughly 30 percent of the Georgia electorate.
We are a red state that operates through the prism of Republican primaries. Win the majority in a GOP primary, and you rule Georgia. And it’s in that primary that the NRA has been unmatched as a political force.
But Delta’s fraction and the Georgia GOP’s fraction aren’t the same people. And that’s where the problem lies. And what has Gellerstedt so worried.
“We’re going to start punishing companies by stances that they take about their company values? These things get noticed. They get absolutely included in the dialogue for competing cities and states to use,” he said. “It’s naïve to think otherwise.”
“Whether you agree with the tax break or not, that’s not the issue. It’s the fact that now we’re going to punish them because they elected to change a policy relative to the NRA.”
Does what happened in the state Capitol this week kill Georgia’s Amazon bid? It certainly doesn’t help. “I think it’s a very dangerous thing happening. And I think it’s going to take more than just the business community speaking out,” Gellerstedt said. “I hope this doesn’t happen, but we may see some real results of jobs lost.”
Delta is safe. Tax credits or not, the airline will survive – even thrive. But persuading newbies to move here may be another matter. “Why would you? If you’re not already here, why would you? If you’re going to be penalized for just speaking your company’s values? I’ve very troubled by that,” Gellerstedt said.