Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday announced he will call lawmakers back to Atlanta on Nov. 13 for a special session to cover the cleanup costs associated with Hurricane Michael, which devastated parts of the Florida Panhandle and southwest Georgia earlier this month.
Lawmakers will also get the chance to support — or reject — a tax break for Delta Air Lines and other air carriers that Deal coveted, possibly finalizing it before the governor leaves office in January.
Deal signed an executive order in July suspending collection of the state sales tax on jet fuel. The tax break, and an earlier decision not to collect local jet-fuel taxes, could save Delta about $40 million a year. The executive order now goes before the General Assembly.
Deal made the special session announcement two weeks before heated midterm elections in which his successor — either Republican Brian Kemp or Democrat Stacey Abrams — will be chosen. The special session will begin a week after the election and is expected to last at least five days.
Chris Riley, the governor’s chief of staff, said the state tab for the cleanup will be in the neighborhood of $100 million, including about $70 million just for debris removal. The state will pay part of local government costs, including overtime for staffers who worked long hours during and after the storm.
While federal disaster aid will likely pay state and local governments back for their costs, Riley said those reimbursements can take one to two years and bills need to be paid in the coming months.
“It’s a pretty severe financial impact, and we want members to vote on it,” Riley said. “We just don’t have the money in their (agency) budgets to cover these costs.”
Deal has squirreled away $2.5 billion in state reserves, but Riley said that money will be left for the next governor. Instead, Riley said, the state will use excess tax money that has come in so far this year, in the same way the General Assembly typically approves a midyear budget in the spring to cover new costs during the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The session is being called, he said, because the midyear budget typically isn’t approved until February or March, “and bills need to be paid now” to cover personnel overtime, contractors and other storm-related costs. The state will have a better estimate of the cost by the time the session begins, he added.
Also expected to be up for debate is a less controversial item: The Senate could vote on a slate of board appointments that Deal has made since April.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, voiced support for Deal’s decision.
“We owe it to the citizens and local governments impacted by Hurricane Michael to continue supporting their recovery efforts,” he said in a statement. “As such, we will need to amend our FY 2019 budget to fund the work ahead.”
Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said: “The majority caucus and I support this session and believe it is vital in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Agriculture is a major player in our state’s economy, and right now our farmers need our assistance more than ever.”
Neither legislative leader mentioned the jet-fuel tax in their statement.
Amazon not on agenda
Georgia governors over the years have issued sparing calls — and plenty of threats — for special legislative sessions. When they do, governors have broad powers; state law lets governors strictly control the agenda that lawmakers consider.
Any special session would cost taxpayers at least $40,000 a day in per diem paid to state lawmakers, along with any other costs associated with a session, such as printing and staffing. Riley said it can be accomplished in as little as five days but could stretch on longer.
A committee of legislative leaders could approve the extra funding for the cleanup, but Riley said the governor wants all lawmakers to debate and vote on the expenditures.
Although he’s threatened several special sessions over the years, this would be the second time Deal has ordered one during his two terms in office. He summoned lawmakers back to the Capitol in August 2011 to redraw the state’s political maps based on new census data.
The governor has also promised a special session if Amazon names Georgia as a finalist for its second headquarters. Riley said the state’s pursuit of the tech giant’s $5 billion campus did not factor into the decision and will not be a part of the legislative agenda.
Deal’s predecessors have also summoned lawmakers back to Atlanta. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, for one, called a special session in 2004 to fill a $57 million budget hole for the state’s public defender system, and he ordered lawmakers back to Atlanta in 2005 to suspend the state’s gas tax as prices spiked after a string of storms.
Shrinking to-do list
Although the special session is designed to provide storm relief, it will reopen one of the thorniest debates of this year’s legislative agenda.
The General Assembly appeared poised to approve a tax break on jet fuel worth more than $50 million annually earlier this year until Delta broke marketing ties with the National Rifle Association, a move guaranteed to cause trouble in an election year. The decision followed the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 people dead.
Delta’s action infuriated some conservatives and prompted each of the leading GOP candidates for governor to oppose the tax exemption. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s president and then a leading Republican candidate for governor, was the most aggressive: His vow to block the legislation effectively killed it, despite Deal’s objection.
The governor’s staff later found a workaround: Deal earlier this year signed an executive order to temporarily suspend the collection of local sales taxes on jet fuel.
State law requires the General Assembly to take up executive orders signed by the governor since the previous session, meaning that a vote is likely required. Not doing so could mean that all jet-fuel users would have to remit millions of dollars worth of the taxes owed to state and local governments since the order was signed.
For Delta, by far the biggest beneficiary of the tax break, it would be a long-sought victory. The company has said that sales taxes on jet fuel put Georgia at a disadvantage, since many other states don’t charge them or charge less. It mounted a major lobbying offensive for the measure, including hiring Deal’s former executive counsel.
It also could take one more item off Deal’s to-do list before he retires to help one of the state’s largest private employers. Earlier this month, the governor announced plans for a $35 million aviation academy at Paulding County’s airport that likely blocks a push to commercialize the facility that Delta long opposed.
For Abrams and Kemp, too, the vote could be a relief. If the General Assembly makes the tax break permanent, it will mean one less controversial issue for the new governor to deal with when he or she takes office in January.
Both Abrams and Kemp commended Deal’s call for a special legislative session.
Kemp praised the “incredible” response by federal, state and local leaders and said “we must continue to provide relief to those who need it most.”
Abrams also applauded Deal and went a step further, outlining plans to create a “Rebuild Georgia Fund” that relies on donations from donors and companies to help farmers ravaged by Hurricane Michael. She would also suspend state sales taxes in regions damaged by severe storms.
“Georgians are resilient — we know how to take care of each other,” she said. “I am proud to stand with our affected communities to help damaged farms, businesses, neighborhoods and homes rebuild — now and for as long as it takes.”
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