Delta severs ties with NRA, risking lucrative state tax break

Delta is pushing for a lucrative jet fuel state sales tax exemption. (AJC file photo)

Delta is pushing for a lucrative jet fuel state sales tax exemption. (AJC file photo)

Delta’s decision to sever marketing ties with the National Rifle Association sparked outrage from Georgia conservatives, complicating the Atlanta-based airline’s push to restore a lucrative fuel tax break it lost years ago.

Several conservative groups and high-profile GOP candidates for higher office called on Republican legislators to ground the tax break after the airline said Saturday it would end a discount for NRA members.

The airline’s decision put other leading Republican contenders in a vise as the Senate prepared to vote on the measure: risk alienating grass-roots conservatives who view Delta’s move as an insult to the NRA, or jeopardize a broader tax-cut package that benefits one of the state’s largest private employers.

Delta quickly tried to stanch the fallout. The airline’s top lobbyist in Georgia, David Werner, tried to temper concerns from restive Republicans and tweeted that the company’s announcement “merely confirmed its neutral status” in a politically charged debate.

Indeed, a weekend news release from Delta stated: “Delta’s decision reflects the airline’s neutral status in the current national debate over gun control amid recent school shootings. Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.”

A growing number of Republicans weren’t buying it. Former state Sen. Rick Jeffares, a candidate for lieutenant governor, voted to support Delta tax breaks during his stint in the Georgia Senate. But hours after Delta cut ties with the NRA, he took to the phones urging his GOP colleagues to reject it.

“If Delta is so flush that they don’t need NRA members’ hard-earned travel dollars,” said Jeffares, “it can certainly do without the $40 million tax break they are asking Georgia taxpayers for.”

Within hours, several other Republican candidates for high-profile seats also publicly opposed the measure. And others, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, were stuck in a quandary over what to do with a tax break that was once expected to easily sail through the Senate and land on the governor’s desk.

Cagle, who heads the Senate and is the GOP front-runner for governor, condemned the corporate giants that cut ties with the NRA over the weekend but didn’t say whether he supports the tax break for Delta.

“If corporate America wants to make a positive difference on gun violence, it should donate a portion of its profits to mental health treatments and school safety initiatives,” Cagle said.

‘Shameful display’

Delta and several other major companies, including rival United, broke ties with the gun rights group amid debate over firearms restrictions. The corporate giants were under pressure to distance themselves from the NRA after the mass shooting at a Florida high school this month.

The NRA called the corporate retreat a “shameful display of political and civic cowardice” and said it wouldn’t distract the group from its mission. And within hours of the airline’s decision, many Georgia conservatives struck a similar chord.

Jason Shepherd, the Cobb GOP chairman, questioned why lawmakers are considering a tax break if “Delta does not respect the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” The Atlanta Tea Party sent members a plea to “stand up for the Second Amendment” and call Gov. Nathan Deal’s office.

Of course, the airline also was finding supporters for its decision. For some, Delta’s stance was all the more reason to book their airfare with the company.

“I’m really proud of Delta. They know that the majority of their customer base doesn’t want to fund the NRA, and they’re listening to us,” said Robbie Medwed, an Atlanta teacher who votes Democratic. “They wouldn’t make a decision like this unless they knew that their customers supported it.”

For Delta, the furor is terrible timing. The airline is on a mission this year to restore the lucrative sales tax exemption on jet fuel that was first adopted in the mid-2000s when the company was in financial distress.

As Delta rebounded to post record-breaking profits, opponents of the break cast it as a special-interest tax giveaway. It was done away with in 2015 when Delta officials got on the wrong side of lawmakers looking for extra cash for infrastructure improvements.

This year, though, it seemed the tax break was on the fast track. It was pitched as an “airline tax break” rather than one that would exclusively help Delta, though the $50 million tax break would primarily help the Atlanta-based firm.

Wary lawmakers were told it would help Atlanta compete for flights with other airports where jet fuel taxes aren’t charged. And Deal, who once employed Werner as his executive counsel, made it one of his top legislative priorities.

The governor praised it at a press conference this month and included the provision in a broader measure to slash the state income tax that he billed as one of the biggest tax cuts in state history. That proposal easily passed the House last week and is pending in the Senate.

On Saturday, as the uproar over the airline’s decision accelerated, Deal’s administration signaled it continued to support the measure.

The governor's top aide, Chris Riley, said on social media that he and Deal are "are assuming this decision was made by Delta to end their contract with all political groups in order to remain neutral and the NRA was the first to be made public!"

‘Backroom deal’

That doesn’t mean the Delta tax cut is safe. Republicans in the state Senate could strip the jet fuel provision from the broader tax-cut measure before lawmakers vote on the bill.

That would set up a tough scenario for Deal, who would be forced to decide between signing a tax cut measure without the Delta provision he's aggressively supported or vetoing what he's called "one of the biggest income tax cuts in state history."

State Sen. Michael Williams, a Republican candidate for governor, seemed sure to step up his calls for the Senate to block the Delta break.

His campaign sent a statement on Friday – before the NRA unrest – urging his GOP colleagues to uncouple the Delta provision from the rest of the tax-cut package. Over the weekend, he said Deal’s support of the measure was proof lawmakers “do the bidding of lobbyists.”

"Delta isn't even worried about insulting a huge portion of voters who belong to the NRA," he said on social media. "They have their backroom deal in place & know the politicians can't survive without their donations."

Two other Republican candidates for governor have also made clear this debate won’t soon come to a crashing halt.

Clay Tippins, a businessman running as an outsider, said he doesn’t want the airline to use “our tax dollars to further their left-wing agenda.”

And Secretary of State Brian Kemp said he opposes the tax break because "it puts the special interests – not hardworking Georgians – first."