A member of a Delta ground crew prepares a jet for departure at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in this February file photo. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The Jolt: Tax hike on jet fuel could cause airlines ‘to grow elsewhere,’ Delta says

On Wednesday afternoon, rural senators all but declared war on Delta Air Lines.

The Senate Finance Committee took House Bill 447, which would grant a 20-year sales tax break on jet fuel purchased by Delta and other carriers, and turned it on its head.

On a 5-4 vote, the panel decided to double the tax, and redistribute Delta’s wealth to 100 or so small airports across the state. From our AJC colleagues James Salzer and Kelly Yamanouchi:

“Aviation infrastructure in our state is very important for a multitude of different reasons, rural economic development being paramount,” said state Sen. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla, who proposed a 10-cents-per-gallon excise tax on aviation fuel, including jet fuel. The measure would also allow local governments to impose a 1 percent sales tax on aviation fuel.

For good measure, senators tacked on the contents of SB 131, which would authorize a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport -- which is mired in the House. Delta opposes the move.

The airline has been cautious in its dealings with the state Capitol. But this morning, Delta sent over a carefully worded statement that first gave effusive thanks to Gov. Brian Kemp for his support of HB 447. (One of his governor’s floor leaders is carrying it.) But then there was this sentence, emphasis ours:

“By doubling the tax rate that airlines pay in the state of Georgia and making Georgia the highest jet fuel tax state in the country among states with hub airports, it would make the state less competitive and give commercial aviation reason to grow somewhere other than the state of Georgia.”

***

Just three years ago, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, and state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, were engaged in a blood feud over a bill to require law enforcement agencies to process thousands of rape kits that had been stored in closets and on shelves.

But tempers cool, and priorities change. Ambition plays its role. 

A little backstory: In 2016, Holcomb introduced legislation that required police to find and count untested sexual assault evidence after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found thousands went untested. 

But after a unanimous vote in the House, the measure was blocked in the state Senate by Unterman, who surprised, then enraged, supporters of the bill by digging in as the pressure mounted.

Soon, the opposition became the butt of late-night talk shows. Political satirist Samantha Bee lampooned Unterman by name on her TBS show “Full Frontal,” and Unterman and her Republican allies were bombarded with emails and social media messages urging her to change her stance.

The debate became a national story line.

Under pressure, Unterman announced a change of heart in the final minutes of the legislative session after endorsing additions to the bill, including one that required victims of sexual assaults be notified of their rights. It was quickly signed into law. 

This year, Holcomb introduced legislation to preserve sexual assault evidence indefinitely until cases are solved. The measure, House Bill 282, passed unanimously in the House. 

And this time, it should receive a warmer welcome in the Senate. Its sponsor? Renee Unterman.

It should be noted that Unterman is now kicking the tires on a 2020 Republican bid for the Seventh District congressional seat being given up by Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

She is also carrying HB 481, an anti-abortion “heartbeat” bill that could come up for a vote on Friday.

***

Shortly after abortion rights demonstrators started massing in the third-floor halls of the state Capitol earlier this month, officials strung up a second layer of rope lines separating lawmakers who enter the chamber from the public.

In addition to the narrow alley for legislators, a second rope line creates an avenue for clerks. Some lawmakers were told it was also intended to insulate young pages from protesters after a federal judge ruled that Capitol police couldn’t ban buttons with profanity

On Wednesday afternoon, House members received another email outlining elaborate new rules for how lawmakers should enter and exit the chamber and speak to someone on the rope line.
It included a map parsing the House lawmakers into four different sections and instructions that specify where and when they should speak to lobbyists, constituents and visitors seeking their attention. 

Says one House member: “An interesting reaction to an abortion protest.” 

***

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s appearance Wednesday on GPB’s “Political Rewind” was a newsy affair. The ears of D.C.’s political establishment were trained on the broadcast, Isakson’s first since telling The Bulwark that President Donald Trump’s recent comments denigrating the late John McCain “drive me crazy” and that he would “lay it on the line” with the president.

Ultimately, not a whole lot of new ground was broken – Isakson called Trump’s comments “deplorable,” similar to comments he made shortly after McCain’s death last August. But the three-term Republican made news on other subjects.

Isakson finally weighed in on another proposal by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to rename Capitol Hill’s Russell Senate Office Building in honor of McCain. 

“Chuck Schumer’s just playing politics,” Isakson said, before comparing the backlash against Russell to the criticism leveled against George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owning slaves. “I’ll stand up for the legacy and the right of Richard Russell to do what he did, and for the people of Georgia to have — the people of the United States have — that building named after him.”

Isakson had refused to step into the debate last year in the weeks after McCain’s death. Isakson said he’d instead prefer to hear what McCain’s friends and family plan to recommend for honoring McCain’s legacy.

***

Isakson also weighed in on the Pentagon’s recent list of military construction projects that it could divert funding from to pay for Trump’s border wall. The list identified upwards of $260 million worth of funding for Georgia projects that could be on the chopping block.

Isakson brushed off concerns that Georgia could lose funding, calling the list a “classic trial balloon.” “We’ll deal with those as they come along, we’ve got until the end of September, that’s a long time in politics,” he said. He voted last week to stick with the president on the border emergency

**

Isakson gave passing mention of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who was in town on Tuesday night, the same night that Sen. David Perdue was holding a campaign fundraiser. He and Isakson dined at the War Horse in Buckhead.

***

More D.C. figures will be coming to east Georgia later this week. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is slated to visit Waynesboro, the site of the Vogtle nuclear energy plant, on Friday morning. There he’ll witness a major construction milestone for a new nuclear island, and he’s expected to announce the finalization of the feds’ loan guarantee to the project.

Also on hand will be Gov. Brian Kemp, Agriculture secretary and former Gov. Sonny Perdue, Southern Company Chairman Tom Fanning, U.S. Reps. Rick Allen, R-Augusta, and Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, and a bevy of other state, local and business officials.

***

On Wednesday, a GOP-affiliated group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service, charging that a new group established by Democrat Stacey Abrams was improperly promoting the former gubernatorial candidate’s ambitions. From the Associated Press:

[FACT] points to roughly $100,000 worth of Facebook ads featuring Abrams, an advertisement for a “Stacey Abrams Fundraiser” that featured Fair Fight Action’s logo, travel for Abrams’ post-election “thank you” tour of Georgia and a professionally produced “highlight reel” of Abrams footage on the group’s website.

The complaint argues Fair Fight Action is supporting Abrams’ political ambitions, not advocating for voting rights. That’s a violation of tax law that forbids political 501(c)(4) nonprofits from providing a “private benefit” to a particular person or group, according to a copy of the complaint. The group typically files ethics complaints against Democrats but has also targeted some Republicans, including North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo, Abrams’ former campaign manager, disputed the details of FACT’s complaint. She said that while Abrams is the figurehead of the organization, Fair Fight Action’s promotional activities have always focused on voting rights issues.

“It’s no surprise that right-wing hit groups allied with Donald Trump are launching bogus attacks against Fair Fight,” she said in an emailed statement. “They’re afraid of Stacey Abrams and even more afraid that all eligible Georgians will exercise their right to vote.”

***

This tidbit from a recent Politico story caught our eye: Only eight people who received a recent request from the House Judiciary Committee to hand over documents related to President Donald Trump have responded to the inquiry. The panel’s Democrats sent the request to 81 individuals, companies and agencies earlier this month. Two Georgians, FBI Director Chris Wray and former White House ethics guru Stefan Passantino, were among the 81 entities queried, but neither has turned over documents, according to the report.

***

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson has picked a side in the race for Georgia GOP chair. The WSB radio host wrote on Twitter this morning that although he’s not a delegate, he backs former state Sen. David Shafer. The other candidates include Bruce Alzevedo and Scott Johnson. The election is in May at the party’s state convention in Savannah.

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