Kemp on airport takeover: Be ‘thankful as Georgians that nothing actually happened’

Gov. Brian Kemp was pointedly quiet about the effort to give the state control of Atlanta's bustling airport during the legislative session. Now that it's over, the Republican has broken his silence about the stalled effort.

“Sometimes you can be thankful, as Georgians, that nothing actually happened,” he told the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Monday. “That is a very important issue not only for this city, but for this state. And we have to be very cautious about it.”

Similar takeover attempts have been floated for decades, but a divided Georgia Senate passed it in March – the first time it got that far in the legislative process. It stalled in the House, however, amid objections from House Speaker David Ralston and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Kemp, however, took no formal stance on the measure throughout the debate, instead saying he is doing his "due diligence." That's a pointed contrast to his predecessor, Gov. Nathan Deal, who joined with Democrats in recent years to ground the measure before it could lift off.

Speaking to a few dozen business leaders, Kemp said he stayed “fairly quiet” because he could see both sides of the issue.

"I understand completely Sen. (Burt) Jones' reasoning for introducing what he did," he said of the measure's Republican sponsor. "I understand some of the reservations that the speaker and members of the House had."

(Another reason left unsaid: Kemp likely didn’t want to lose any leverage with Senate GOP lawmakers, who considered the airport bill a top priority.)

The takeover measure wound up getting smushed onto two other measures near the end of the session in what became known as the "Frankenbill" – a jet fuel tax break that would have benefited Delta Air Lines and other air carriers, and a rural transit mobility push. All three failed this year due to infighting. 

Kemp was particularly miffed about the jet fuel incentive, which stalled amid Senate objections despite his personal lobbying of GOP lawmakers. He said the issue shouldn't have been "controversial" but became more toxic when it got bound together with the airport issue.

The takeover effort's Republican supporters say the switch is needed to protect the state's economic engine from corruption and mismanagement, and pointed to the ongoing federal corruption probe that has netted several high-profile indictments.

Critics, including Bottoms and most Democrats, say the airport has become the world’s busiest, and one of the most efficient, under Atlanta’s oversight. And they say any takeover attempt will jeopardize the airport’s finances and trigger a wave of litigation.

Complicating the debate is the sometimes-thorny relationship between Kemp and Bottoms, who clashed on the campaign trail and have worked to smooth ties since then. In one sign of a thaw, Bottoms last week tapped former state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, a close Kemp ally, to her new ethics and transparency task force.

The issue is likely to return when lawmakers convene again in January, and Kemp told the Rotary that the mayor should use the next year wisely.

“The mayor has a great opportunity to continue to expand confidence to the people in this city, and to the lawmakers, about some of the things that have gone on in the airport in the past,” he said. “I feel certain that she’ll take advantage of the opportunity and we’ll reassess where we are next year.”