State Sen. Burt Jones 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 a city contractor, Jeff Jafari, on crossover” day in early March. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

After state’s airport takeover failure, a wake-up call for city

An effort to hand the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport failed to win approval as the clock ran out on this year’s legislative session.

But supporters warned the measure could be back next year if ongoing federal investigations turn up wrongdoing involving Atlanta’s management of the world’s busiest airport

“I do think oversight is a great thing,” Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said Wednesday. “But if we see additional corruption arise or indictments arise or something we can’t foresee, I think the conversation will continue to go on.”

The threat of a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson, the city of Atlanta’s crown jewel, has lurked in the background for years. But such plan had never advanced and some had come to believe it never would.

So, city officials were initially caught by surprise when a bill rapidly swept through the Georgia Senate last month. The House backed a separate bill that would have instead created an oversight panel.

Still, the takeover legislation remained in play all the way into the last day of the legislative session, before failing to gain final passage Tuesday.

Even state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, who introduced the original bill S.B. 131, acknowledged Wednesday: “We got farther through the process than probably I expected it to.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a written statement: “We are pleased that logic and reason have prevailed and look forward to resuming and continuing the positive and productive working relationship we have had with the State.”

“Our focus remains on maintaining ownership and operations of the world’s busiest and most efficient airport, as we work daily to improve ethics and transparency throughout City operations,” she said.

The Honorable Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of Atlanta, speaks to the press after the State Of The City Business Breakfast at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta on Tuesday March 14th, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta City Council president Felicia Moore issued a statement saying “we live to fight another day.”

“My office and the Council stand prepared to further address the procurement concerns that gave rise to this effort as we continue advancing the goal of restoring public confidence in local government,” Moore said.

And the possibility of a state airport takeover is not entirely dead. In the biennial legislative session, the bill remains alive when the session resumes next year.

“It’s just going to be sitting there waiting until next session,” Jones said. “Long term I do think that an aviation authority is in the best interest for the state as a whole.”

Jones added that he’ll be watching for the findings from a Federal Aviation Administration investigation of potential misuse of Atlanta airport funds and the federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall.

Some are saying city officials should take a lesson from state legislators’ criticisms of the city’s governance of the airport.

“This should be a wake-up call to the city,” said Sara Henderson, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. “We have all this corruption that’s occurred over really the last few decades.”

The clock ran out on a state effort to tak control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport but the push could resume next year. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Henderson said Common Cause Georgia is not advocating for a state takeover of the airport, but is in favor of a municipal airport authority for more external oversight of Hartsfield-Jackson.

“The state just recently as of last year’s budget totally funded the school system in Georgia. I don’t think they’re necessarily capable of running the airport,” Henderson said. But she said a municipal authority could allow oversight by people who don’t have a dog in the fight.

“It’s such a large amount of money we’re talking about,” Henderson said. “Another layer of scrutiny is not a bad thing and it’s desperately needed.”

Airport officials claim it has an annual economic impact of $64 billion, although that can be measured in different ways.

J.E. “Sandy” Murdock III, a former FAA chief counsel, said airports have “safety and environmental consequences and economic consequences that are huge for not just Atlanta, but for the state of Georgia. That’s why the state legislature looked at it.”

“Hartsfield-Jackson is too big to fail, but it’s not too big to be punished,” he said.

Duncan, the lieutenant governor, said time will tell whether interest in the issue fades at the state Capitol.

“If the next 12 months doesn’t produce any corruption or indictments or anything like that, that’s a great step in the right direction,” he said.

In that case, “I think the conversation will get a lot more quiet about an airport takeover,” he added.

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