Opinion: Georgia GOP threatens gross abuse of government power

Delta Air Lines, with a reported pre-tax profit of $5.5 billion last year, does not need and should not get a $40 million tax gift from the Georgia Legislature.

That said, Delta also should not be subject to political blackmail by Georgia Republicans willing to use the taxing authority of the state to force compliance with their own political ideology. That is an utterly outrageous abuse of government power.

Since the Parkland shooting tragedy, the National Rifle Association has come under harsh attack nationwide because of its extremist, no-compromise approach to gun-safety laws. Dozens of major companies, including Delta, have ended discount programs that they had offered to NRA members. And while Delta claims that by ending its discount program it is merely adopting a policy of neutrality, that’s not how it’s being interpreted by many.

For Georgia Republicans, that creates a dilemma. In the hierarchy of lobbying groups at the state capitol, Delta ranks near the top. But at the very top, at the summit, sits the National Rifle Association. Delta is powerful; the NRA is sacrosanct.

So when Delta takes a position deemed by some to be anti-NRA, the state’s conservative political structure reacts with knee-jerk stupidity. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor, announced Monday that he will block a vote on a $40 million tax break for Delta — a proposal already endorsed by Gov. Nathan Deal and on its way to easy enactment — unless Delta reverses its decision.

Let’s be clear: Every reason that supposedly justified the tax break prior to Delta’s decision on the NRA — economic development, competitiveness, fairness, etc., — remains in full effect today. The Georgia Legislature is doing this solely to punish Delta for its perceived political position.

In effect, that aviation fuel tax will become a $40 million annual fine, imposed by government using its taxing power, as punishment for the expression of sentiment that certain politicians do not like. That is antithetical to the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment, which guarantees that government cannot reward political expression that it likes, nor can it punish expression that it opposes.

For Cagle, strong-arming Delta on behalf of the NRA is likely to play well in the Republican primary, but I’m not so sure about its wisdom in a general election. The abuse of power is too clear, and with suburban women expected to be an important swing vote, doing it on behalf of the NRA could come back to haunt him.

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the first time that legislators have played this game with Delta. Three years ago, after Delta CEO Richard Anderson criticized the General Assembly for failing to act on transportation infrastructure and for dabbling in anti-gay legislation, legislators reacted by killing the very same tax break for Delta now at issue again.

At the time, Anderson warned that anti-gay legislation and the absence of a regional transportation plan would handicap the metro area in efforts to draw industry here. Those issues remain very much in play, particularly as Amazon tries to whittle its list of candidate cities. And you have to wonder what Amazon folks are thinking up in Seattle, watching all this. They can’t be too happy with the notion that economic development packages can be offered and withdrawn in Georgia depending on how obediently a corporation toes a certain political philosophy. It’s unsubtle blackmail, and it’s stupid.