A state takeover of Atlanta’s airport begs the question: Whose hands are cleaner?

Keep your eye on the state Capitol. By next Thursday, you could see some history made. And an eruption of hostilities that could ultimately touch your pocketbook, if not your job.

Last week, on a 5-4 vote, the Senate Transportation Committee gave the thumbs-up to Senate Bill 131, a measure to place Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport under state management.

For decades if not generations, such legislation has been threatened as a means of giving state lawmakers leverage over Atlanta mayors. But SB 131, authored by Burt Jones, R-Jackson, already carries the signatures of 30 of the chamber’s 35 GOP senators.

Which makes a Senate floor vote before Thursday's Crossover Day deadline nearly inevitable. In the 94-year history of the Atlanta airport, a state takeover threat has never progressed so far.

She is not raising her voice, but Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is ringing all sorts of alarm bells. “A theft of the airport – which is what it is – would be catastrophic for the relationship between the city and the state,” Bottoms told me the day after the Senate committee vote. “We will not go away quietly. There will be protracted litigation, I’m sure. It’s not healthy. And it’s not needed.

“You’re tampering with the economic engine of the region. Why you would want to destabilize the best-run airport in the world – I don’t know what the end game is there,” Bottoms said.

“I am baffled by the unnecessary wars that we start. And that’s what this is. This is an act of war between the city and state when it’s unnecessary. And I hope that it stops soon,” the mayor said.

Before that Senate committee vote on Tuesday, multiple City Hall figures testified against the measure. “It is the golden goose. Don’t disrupt it. Don’t ruffle its feathers. Please leave it alone. It’s happy,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore.

John Selden, the newly appointed general manager of the airport, warned state lawmakers that they were tinkering with “the Ferrari of airports.”

Mayor Bottoms had done her own Capitol lobbying a few hours earlier. She knocked on Gov. Brian Kemp’s door.

Bottoms said she repeated her warnings that a takeover could jeopardize the pristine bond ratings of both the airport and the state. She pointed to the extended fight in North Carolina, when state lawmakers attempted to seize control of Charlotte’s airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration ultimately decided that it wouldn’t recognize such seizures unless all parties agreed to them. “The city of Atlanta has to consent to a takeover — which the city of Atlanta is not going to do,” Bottoms said.

We invited Governor Kemp to weigh in on the topic. He is apparently not yet ready. But it may be significant that he has two floor leaders in the Senate, Republicans Brian Strickland of McDonough and Blake Tillery of Vidalia. Neither of them has signed onto SB 131.

Because the issue has never gotten this far, we are also dealing with facets of a situation that have never been explored. For instance, behind this debate over who should control Hartsfield-Jackson is a potent question:

Whose brand of corruption do you prefer?

Lord knows, under city ownership, Atlanta’s airport has generated its share of headlines. I’ve written more than a few of them. In the presentation of his bill, author Burt Jones declared airport corruption to be “a continuous stain” that is “embarrassing for the city and the state.”

Bottoms said she told the governor the current federal investigation into City Hall bribery has not touched the airport — although that requires one to overlook an FAA inquiry into whether the city used airport revenue to pay for the lawyers who responded to federal subpoenas.

But the state Capitol has its own, long tradition of self-aggrandizement. Like the governor who got a $100,000 tax break for himself in the final minutes of a legislative session. That was Sonny Perdue in 2005.

Or state School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to stealing $600,000 in federal funds earmarked for deaf children.

You can supply your own, more recent examples. Obvously, one could argue there’s a pattern. A continuous stain, even.

The Atlanta mayor’s point is that state government is allowed to clean up its own messes — or not, as it chooses. Within reason, she argues, the city of Atlanta should be allowed the same prerogative.

There are holes in the takeover argument. Since last year, the author of SB 131 has said he is disturbed by the control that a single political official, the mayor of Atlanta, has over airport doings.

But as he presented his bill last week, Jones described a small change in his text. The membership of the state authority that would oversee the airport had been expanded from nine to 12, with all three extra appointments going to the governor — giving him majority control.

So should the state run the show, a single political figure would still have extraordinary control of Hartsfield-Jackson.

Jones also said his bill is patterned after the rules that bind the state authorities that operate the Port of Savannah and the Georgia World Congress Center. That didn’t entirely please state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega.

“I don’t believe this goes far enough,” Gooch said. “I think we need to add more meat to it, not only to avoid corruption, but just to say that it’s flat-out not allowed. If you’re going to sit on these boards, and are going to make decisions affecting taxpayer operations, you cannot benefit financially. Ever. Not only for any member, but any immediate family member.”

To explain: On most state boards, a member simply is required to declare that he or she is doing business with the entity that he or she also governs. That “transparency” has been considered enough.

Just for the sake of example, Jones’ family operates a petroleum distribution business. If Gooch’s suggestion were adopted, should Jones ever be placed on a state airport authority, that business would be barred from doing any business at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Jones said he was open to anything that would tighten up his legislation. “I respect your opinion on this issue,” Jones told Gooch.

But that language wasn’t added Tuesday. Gooch was one of the five Republicans who voted SB 131 out of committee. Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, who signed the legislation, was one of two GOP senators who voted no.

This coming debate over an airport takeover will not only be historic, but riveting, too.

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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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