Hartsfield-Jackson takeover morphs into Frankenbill

KENT D. JOHNSON /kdjohnson@ajc.com

KENT D. JOHNSON /kdjohnson@ajc.com

Georgia House leaders on Wednesday showed the state Senate exactly what they thought of its plan to take over Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

They turned the takeover into a proposal to create a state oversight committee with limited power. They threw in a jet-fuel tax break for air carriers such as Delta Air Lines that Senate leaders haven’t backed. And they tossed in a rural transit bill for good measure.

The massive bill, which has the support of Gov. Brian Kemp and House leaders from both parties, was created Wednesday to replace one of the two airport takeover bills being considered at the state Capitol.

Whether the newly created mega-bill has a chance of passing, or is meant more as a bargaining position in the final few days of the session, is unclear. The General Assembly session is scheduled to end Tuesday.

The proposal was put together and passed by the House Rules Committee, which is the gatekeeper for what legislation the chamber votes on.

Such legislation — called "Frankenbills" because they are stitched together from many parts — are common late in General Assembly sessions. But they usually don't combine several of the bigger bills of the year into one.

The proposal would create a legislative oversight committee to monitor commercial airports in Georgia, including Hartsfield-Jackson.

It is seen as an alternative to a Senate-approved bill calling for a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson, a controversial measure vehemently opposed by city of Atlanta officials.

Atlanta officials voiced objections to state oversight of the world’s busiest airport as well.

“I’m not any more excited about this,” Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore said.

A spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued a statement saying: “There is no reason whatsoever for any state oversight.”

In making their case for state involvement, legislators have pointed to an ongoing federal bribery investigation into Atlanta City Hall and a history of contracting controversies at the Atlanta airport, saying a change in governance is needed.

"That kind of activity that has gone on for several decades now is really embarrassing for the state, and it should be embarrassing for the city as well," said state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson. "This is trying to change a management structure."

The makeup of the proposed Major Airport Legislative Oversight Committee, on the other hand, would be the chairmen of the House and Senate Transportation and Appropriations committees, four House members appointed by the House speaker and four senators appointed by the Senate president.

It would "periodically inquire into and review the operations, contracts, safety, financing, organization, and structure of commercial airports," according to the bill, and it would have the power to call witnesses and compel the production of documents. State Rep. Kevin Tanner, who introduced the substitute to Senate Bill 131,  compared it to the state Legislature's MARTA Oversight Committee.

"I believe this oversight committee is a step in the right direction to ensure a measured response, not a political one, to this issue," Tanner said. He added: "There are some problems you really just don't want to completely own, quite frankly."

Delta issued a statement Wednesday saying it is “appreciative” that under the amended legislation, Hartsfield-Jackson “will remain under the control of the City of Atlanta with which we have a long standing and successful partnership.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, said he had not yet seen the new version of the bill but heard it combined several measures.

“Historically, those bills don’t bode well,” he said. “I’ll be curious to see what their thought process was.”

Some legislators raised questions about the effects that creating an oversight committee will have on other areas of the state with commercial airports — including Albany, Athens, Augusta, Brunswick, Columbus, Macon, Savannah and Valdosta. It’s unclear how DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, a general aviation airport in Chamblee that’s the second-busiest airport in the state, would be affected.

The committee tacked on a measure, backed by Kemp, to suspend jet-fuel taxes on airlines such as Delta for 20 years. The measure easily passed the House earlier this session and would save airlines $35 million to $40 million a year. Most of the savings would go to Delta.

The House proposal included a small excise tax that would raise $3.5 million to $4 million a year and would be used as matching money to attract more federal funding. That money, in turn, would be used for projects at small airports, such as runway resurfacing.

The Senate, however, led the charge last year to kill another jet-fuel tax break last year after Delta cut marketing ties with the National Rifle Association.

The Senate Finance Committee last week attached its airport takeover bill to the jet-fuel measure. And then it rewrote the jet-fuel proposal so that airlines would pay a new, sizable excise tax, raising $120 million for about 100 small airports across the state.

That stitched-together bill, like the one the House Rules Committee proposal passed Wednesday, is still eligible to be considered by lawmakers.

Small-town lawmakers — who hold many of the key positions in the majority Republican General Assembly — have long said the state doesn’t spend enough to maintain and improve rural airports. Many of those airports have very limited use, but rural lawmakers say they are vital tools in trying to attract industry to their areas.

Besides the airport committee and the jet-fuel tax break, the House committee on Wednesday tacked on Tanner’s bill to encourage transit expansion across Georgia.

The measure, House Bill 511 would allow counties to raise sales taxes for public transportation. And it would establish programs to aid unemployed residents who need transportation to find jobs.

But its provisions to consolidate state transit programs in a single new agency have drawn opposition. Though it passed the House by an overwhelming margin, the bill appears to be going nowhere in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Like last year’s legislation that paved the way for transit expansion in metro Atlanta, HB 511 seeks to jump-start transit across the rest of the state. Among other things, it would provide transit vouchers or credits to unemployed residents in 22 poor counties who need help getting transportation to jobs. And it provides tax credits for companies that help their employees get to work.

The opposition has come from the Georgia Department of Transportation, which objects to plans to consolidate state transit functions. Currently, six agencies oversee some aspect of public transportation in Georgia.