State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, is fighting proposed legislation that would give the state oversight of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Atlanta hopes to ground state bid to take over airport

A Republican effort to give the state more control of Atlanta’s booming airport hasn’t even hit lawmakers’ desks yet, but word of it percolating under the Gold Dome has triggered furious efforts to ground it before it can take flight.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, in her first month in office, has launched a full-scale lobbying effort to prevent the state from wresting away control of its prized jewel. Democrats vow to fight it “tooth and nail.” And Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration has raised a bright red flag.

With all that opposition, its prospects of liftoff are dim.

But the bill’s sponsors — a coalition of powerful Senate Republicans — are thrusting ahead. They cite the federal corruption probe into airport contracts that has netted three guilty pleas, along with the fire that shut down the airport last month.

“We ought to have a holistic vision for the state on transportation, aviation and transit,” said state Sen. Burt Jones, a Jackson Republican who said much of the Senate GOP caucus — at least 35 lawmakers — has signed on to support his still-developing measure.

“We’re missing a good opportunity by not having state input over the biggest economic engine in the state,” Jones said. “And right now it’s controlled by one elected official — the Atlanta mayor.”

The issue of oversight is no small matter to city officials. The airport has been under city control since it was redeveloped from an abandoned racetrack in the 1920s into an airfield. And Atlanta officials have jealously guarded it for decades as it grew into a major economic development engine, with an estimated annual statewide impact of $70 billion.

“Everybody wants to lay hands on the golden goose,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. “But the leadership of Atlanta had the wisdom to invest long ago. And it’s made all the difference in the trajectory for Atlanta’s economy.”

That hasn’t stopped some legislators from eyeing it. State lawmakers have tried repeatedly over the past few decades to gain more control over the airport, though they failed to gain much traction even when city-state relations were at a nadir.

They’re at a far higher point now. Deal enjoyed a famously close relationship with Kasim Reed when he was mayor. And Bottoms has worked to stoke those warm ties with the governor and legislative leaders. She was spotted the other day leaving House Speaker David Ralston’s office after a lengthy meeting.

Senate Republicans say it’s a matter of policy, not politics. It’s only fair, they say, that the airport have the same layer of state oversight as Savannah’s port or the Georgia World Congress Center, which are both overseen by state boards.

“The port is much like the airport. The state does have to have involvement in it,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, a Dunwoody Republican who supports Jones’ bill.

A ‘challenging’ change

Almost as soon as word of Jones’ bill began to swirl, opposition started to mount.

At an event last week sponsored by PoliticallyGeorgia.com, Ralston repeatedly said his chamber would take a cautious approach to the proposal and questioned whether the state would want to assume the airport’s liabilities.

And Deal’s administration circulated a two-page memo that warned there is nothing simple about creating a state oversight board. The memo, by Diana Pope of the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission, said it “will cast a negative perception that could negatively impact credit ratings” because of the uncertainty over a change.

“At this time, we do not know what all will be involved,” she wrote, “but it will be a very challenging transaction.”

Pope added praise for the airport, which has remained the busiest in the world for much of the past two decades and earned an upgraded bond rating in November 2016 partly because of new long-term contracts from vendors.

Those lucrative contracts are at the center of a federal corruption probe — and one of the reasons Jones and allies say the state should have more control.

Adam Smith, the city of Atlanta’s former top purchasing officer, was sentenced to 27 months in prison as part of the long-simmering bribery investigation. And two contractors who admitted to paying bribes to win city of Atlanta contracts have also been slapped with federal prison sentences in the probe of the pay-to-play scandal.

“There are plenty of concerns with the procurement process and the vendor selection process that’s continually put into question,” Jones said. “I think it should be our duty as public servants to at least call it to question.”

With the memo, though, Deal’s administration may have signaled it doesn’t want the takeover bid to risk another prized asset: the state’s AAA bond rating. The governor’s top aide, Chris Riley, also recently reinforced that point in a meeting with state Senate leaders.

“Any time the director of GSFIC implies we could be placing the state’s AAA bond rating in jeopardy, they have Governor Deal’s full attention,” Riley said. “He will not jeopardize Georgia’s AAA bond rating.”

‘Hands off’

Atlanta officials aren’t taking anything for granted.

Bottoms made the short walk from City Hall on Monday to meet privately with Senate Republican leaders about “how we can be better partners and improve our relationships.” Sending the airport measure into a tailspin was front and center in her discussions.

“We have the busiest and most efficient airport, and it’s running well,” Bottoms said in an interview. “There have been challenges in the past, but by and large when you have an entity of that magnitude there will be bumps in the road.”

She has backup from the city’s legislative delegation. State Sen. Nikema Williams called it a “nonbill — as in, not going to happen.” And Orrock said the message to her colleagues was an unequivocal “hands off.”

“That’s our tax dollars as Atlantans that have been spent on that airport all these years,” she said.

Though the measure hasn’t been formally introduced yet, a version of it circulating around the state Capitol declares the state should have authority over Georgia’s biggest airport “for reasons of safety, security, economy and efficiency.”

It would create a 13-member board with nine members tapped by the governor and two each by the lieutenant governor and the House speaker. The board would have the power to execute contracts, apply for grants, borrow money and appoint airport managers and other top officials.

Jones said he would work with Deal’s office and others to hash out their concerns but said he was hopeful a plan could emerge.

“There’s always a path forward,” he said.

Republican support may not be cut and dry, either. Several GOP senators declined to comment on it. And some supporters added a costly wrinkle to their endorsement.

Millar, the Dunwoody Republican, said the change would mean Georgia would have to spend dedicated funding to support the airport “just like the state needs to put money into MARTA.”

“If we want oversight,” he added, “we’ll have to write a check.”

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Staff writer Maya Prabhu contributed to this article.

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