The Georgia Senate blocked a lucrative tax break bill Monday that would benefit Delta. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he would not support tax legislation helping the airline. He cited Delta's decision to end a program of discounted rates for NRA members Gov. Nathan Deal argues the $50 million jet fuel tax break would keep Atlanta competitive.

Torpy at Large: In Ga. fight, Delta’s muscle no match for NRA’s big guns

Lt. Gov. Crazy Eyes (aka Casey Cagle) was stuck. Delta Air Lines, his friend and benefactor, whom he had dutifully supported through the years, had gone and done something that left him in a pickle: The airline dissed the NRA.

In the wake of the latest school slaughter, Delta was getting pressured to end its marketing arrangement with the National Rifle Association, one that afforded members discounts. But in trying to silence criticism from the left, Delta opened itself up for a full-scale barrage from the organization with weaponry in its name.

In the Golden Dome, badmouthing the NRA is akin to pistol-whipping a preacher. In fact, some legislators could survive the latter offense, but not the former.

Cagle, who had worked with Republican leadership to get Delta a tax break on jet fuel, initially tried to mildly scold the airline in a response over the weekend when the news broke. But being a business-friendly Republican front-runner in the race for governor is a tough job in Georgia these days.

Businesses don’t like to offend the many constituencies out there who are potential customers. And those in politics trying to be A Friend of Business must be largely circumspect too. But the Republican base doesn’t worry about such niceties.

Cagle’s opponents — Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, businessman Clay Tippins and state Sen. Michael Williams — all fired away immediately at the airline, siding with the Gun Guys over the Flyboys.

Yes, Delta employs 33,000 Georgians and helps ensure that Atlanta is a thriving place. But it doesn’t issue an election report card that makes or breaks Republican candidates.

I mean, who do candidates want to tussle with? Delta CEO Ed Bastian, a stalwart business exec? Or NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, who believes “they” are not just after our guns but all of our freedoms?

Cagle, seeing his well-honed front-runner status suddenly jeopardized, realized he wanted no part of a loony calling him a wimp. (He already has two opponents, former military men Hunter Hill and Clay Tippins, who are doing that in ads.)

Soon, Cagle was going all Schwarzenegger in a tweet: “I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

Later, he said, “I’m tired of conservatives being kicked around on our values. It’s time we stand up and fight and show corporations that conservative values are important, not just to Georgia but to the entire nation.”

Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Let me pause to sprinkle a smattering of reality here. Sure, conservatives get kicked around these days. And so do liberals. But conservatives (Republicans) have the presidency, the U.S. House and Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court, most of the governorships and all the levers of government in Georgia. So whining is really a bit disingenuous.

The response to Cagle’s declaration from the left — and even the middle — was just as quick as the Republican haste to bash Delta.

“Republican leaders said Delta tax cuts created jobs that were good for business,” said Democratic state Sen. Steve Henson. “But Republican fear of the NRA is evidently more important than the Georgia business climate, jobs or the well-being of Georgia citizens.”

NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 22, 2018, in National Harbor, Md. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
Photo: Olivier Douliery/TNS

A headline on the wire service Reuters said, “Georgia gives Amazon one great reason to stay away,” referring to the national sweepstakes to land Amazon’s second headquarters and 50,000 jobs.

Atlanta is in the hunt in that race, largely on Georgia peddling the notion that it’s a great state in which to do business. Provided, of course, that you don’t rile the NRA.

Not wanting to be left out, opponent Kemp, the secretary of state and a budding NRA sycophant, is now urging lawmakers to pass a Fourth of July tax holiday for guns and ammo.

The airline said it is terminating a discount program it offered NRA members.

Now, I don’t want to portray Delta as the victim in all this. The company, with a $3.6 billion net income last year, was angling for Georgia to restore the $50 million tax exemption on jet fuel — which would save the company about $40 million annually. That’s barely 1 percent of its profit. In fact, the company had hired 13 lobbyists for the legislative session, which is enough to fill half the first-class seats in a 757.

And some of the other seats could be filled by the likes of Cagle, who in 2011 was accorded Platinum Medallion status because of his special friendship with the airline. Other key legislators were bumped up, too.

Oh, yeah, the jet fuel sales tax was extended at that time.

Gary Leff, who writes the blog View From the Wing, noted that airlines are intertwined with governments on many levels, so they must play that game. Also, he noted, Delta execs are “tough negotiators. They don’t leave much on the table with anybody. Forty million here, 40 million there, pretty soon you have real money.”

A Clayton County Public Schools student holds up a sign at the entrance of Delta Air Lines’ headquarters on Feb. 13, 2018, to protest Georgia House Bill 821. The proposal would restore a $50 million tax break on jet fuel purchases — saving Delta about $40 million annually. But the Clayton County school system counts on that money. (ALYSSA POINTER/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But the tax break was largely on the backs of one of the metro area’s poorest counties — Clayton, which faced the loss of millions of dollars. In fact, hundreds of students from the Clayton County Public Schools district recently descended on Delta’s headquarters to protest.

“I’m really appalled at the lieutenant governor,” said Jessie Goree, a Clayton County school board member. “When we were down there trying to save our soul, he didn’t open his mouth. He’s more concerned about the right to fire a rifle than he is about funding schoolchildren.”

William Perry, who has worked in governmental watchdog groups, said he was initially surprised by the turn of events.

“It’s hard to come up with another example at the Capitol where money didn’t win out,” Perry said. “I get the power of the NRA. But I would have put my money on Delta. The power of the ballot box is scaring them more than the almighty dollar.”

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