The sponsor, state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, made his case for his bill to give the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson airport as he unfurled a copy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featuring a front-page article about the indictment of the contractor, Jeff Jafari. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Never mind the economy, corruption -- the seizure of Atlanta’s airport is about identity

Your state Senate has just saved you the price of a round-trip ticket to London. You no longer need to cross the Atlantic to find out how the British stumbled into the debacle that is Brexit.

Your state Senate has brought Brexit to you.

On Friday, one half of the Legislature endorsed a major overhaul of the Georgia economy, based on the disputable notion that residents of the state Capitol are more honest than those in Atlanta City Hall, and upon several decades of bottled-up resentment.

“We have spent billions of dollars deepening the port. Building the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Yes, we’re world class, too,” argued state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who is contemplating a run for Congress. “They always talk about the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport being world class. Well, we’ve got world-class authorities, too.”

On a 34-22 vote that featured a single Republican defection, the Senate approved a state takeover of the $64 billion-a-year, 94-year-old enterprise that is Hartsfield-Jackson, currently under the sole ownership of the city of Atlanta.

» Live: Use AJC tracker to follow Georgia bills

» Photos: Crossover Day at the Georgia Legislature

Republican lawmakers felt no need to argue that the takeover would have a beneficial impact for the state. That was assumed. A headline in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, documenting the previous day’s indictment of a longtime Atlanta contractor for bribery, proved it.

Democrats have argued – and did so again on Thursday – that a change of ownership would mean renegotiating an agreement with Delta Air Lines to keep its headquarters in Atlanta, that it would cost the state millions of dollars to transfer revenue bonds, and that the Federal Aviation Administration would side with the city of Atlanta in any dispute over ownership.

None of that mattered. Because at bottom, like Brexit, the fight over the airport is about identity.

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, introduced his bill by noting the “embarrassment” that corruption at Atlanta City Hall had caused the state. And yet he wanted to be fair.

“I’m a very reasonable person and I know that sometimes perception can be stronger than reality,” he said. “I didn’t want partisan politics. I didn’t want a rural metro divide, or anything like that. I wanted the facts to make our conclusion.”

The study committee that spurred his legislation, which Jones chaired, had been made up of wise lawmakers from Albany to Blue Ridge, he said. Although, under questioning, Jones admitted that no legislator who represented Atlanta was included.

Jones said this was the fault of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who had named the committee members — and is now out of the picture. Lord knows, a chairman seeking a special study committee on such a topic would have no influence when it comes to naming specific members — or keeping others off.

The author of Senate Bill 131 also emphasized a point that hasn’t gotten enough attention — the creation of a future rival to Hartsfield-Jackson. “Our state’s going to continue to grow. At some point in time, we need an entity willing to look at other venues for a second hub,” Jones said.

The idea has been strongly opposed, over several decades, by the city of Atlanta and Delta.

Burt Jones’ first questioner was state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur. (There are three Jones in the Senate. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, participated in the debate, but will receive no further mention here.)

Emanuel Jones directed himself to the economic impact of what the Senate was about to do. “Can you share your findings with us?” he asked Burt Jones. “Specifically, what data analysis have you performed? What feasibility studies, what impact studies? Do you have those findings to share with us?”

Burt Jones had no such information, but he offered an alternative point: Airport vendors who trace their selection to favoritism could ultimately endanger the public welfare, he said.

It was left to Renee Unterman, the Republican from Buford, to lay bare the bones of resentment. Her speech in favor of SB 131 was seven minutes of catharsis.

Unterman railed against Atlanta corruption, and expressed deep resentment over Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s refusal to negotiate the airport’s surrender to state officials. “The only way we can get’ em to the table is embarrass them,” she said, apparently referring to SB 131. “Come on. Come one block over, and let’s talk about this.”

Unterman spoke of a “very famous” franchiser in Gwinnett County whom she said had been locked out of Hartsfield-Jackson. She told of a six-month, unsuccessful effort to get permission for a non-profit group from southwest Georgia to set up a food kiosk at the airport.

And she was unconcerned that no lawmaker from Atlanta was asked to participate in the research that led to SB 131. She noted the thousands of acres of land that the Atlanta airport, decades ago, purchased in Gwinnett, Paulding and Dawson counties, to maintain a lid on a second airport.

“Now my county still has land that is taken off our millage tax digest so we can’t develop it,” Unterman said. “We have a vested interest in this, even when you live miles and miles away.”

“ATL, this is not your ATM any more. You need to come to the table,” Unterman concluded.

Emanuel Jones provided the Democratic response, focusing on Unterman’s statement that the bill was indeed intended to embarrass the city of Atlanta.

State Sen. Jennifer Jordan, D-Atlanta, urges a yes vote on one of multiple amendments to block a bill that would give the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson airport. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

“I find that offensive,” he said. “It’s hard to get anybody to the table that already owns the table. Atlanta owns this airport. Some of us in here may not like that, but they do.”

Where this effort goes next, it’s hard to say. The House will take its turn. Gov. Brian Kemp has remained silent, but it should be noted that during the Senate debate, Blake Tillery of Vidalia, one of his floor leaders, was assigned the task of derailing Democratic efforts to block the airport bill.

There is the possibility that the fight could be nationalized. Questioning Burt Jones, the bill’s author, Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, cited a 2016 FAA decision that it would not approve transfers of airport ownership without a firm court decision or an agreement among all parties involved.

It would take a great effort in Washington to change that, Jordan said, and Georgia’s delegation is finding it difficult enough just to get disaster relief from Hurricane Michael.

“I don’t think our standing has been any better than what it is right now in Georgia,” Burt Jones said. “Will we get everything we want? Probably not. But I know that Senator [David] Perdue has the president’s ear. I think they do consult.”

Jones was speaking most specifically about federal hurricane relief. But the same path could apply to an adjustment of federal rules in a fight over the title to Hartsfield-Jackson.

As with Brexit, we have no idea where this is going.

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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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