(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s bid for Amazon becomes a prime issue in governor’s race

Georgia’s aggressive maneuvering for Amazon’s second headquarters — and the $1 billion or more in incentives it will likely require — has fast become a dividing line in the race for governor.

Republican candidates are under pressure from grass-roots activists to reject juicy pot-sweeteners to land the $5 billion project — and one conservative is making his opposition to incentives a focus of his campaign.

The January 20th, 2018 edition of Georgia Legislative Week in Review with Mark Neisse, Maya Prabhu and the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Democrats are using Georgia’s courtship of Amazon, which last week put Atlanta on a list of 20 finalists, to renew their opposition to “religious liberty” legislation that they say could irreparably damage the state’s chances.

The question of incentives, for now at least, is purely theoretical. Gov. Nathan Deal said he’d call a special session to hash out the bounty of rewards Georgia would offer Amazon if the tech giant names metro Atlanta as a top-three finalist, sparing lawmakers from a vote until then.

But state officials and corporate leaders are confident that chance should come, and oddsmakers put Georgia among the top contenders for the coveted deal. That would set up a showdown over whether the 50,000 high-paying jobs it could bring is worth a trove of tax breaks and other spending.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll suggests a broad majority of voters believe it is. About 65 percent of those surveyed said they backed doling out incentives worth more than $1 billion if Amazon delivers on its promise for tens of thousands of jobs.

That 10-figure amount could wind up being the floor. Several states have already offered many times that amount. Newark’s bid involves $5 billion from New Jersey and $2 billion from the city. And already, some gubernatorial candidates are laying the groundwork to oppose Georgia following suit.

‘Not the end of the world’

State Sen. Michael Williams, who is running for governor as a staunch conservative, has recently injected a word of caution about Amazon into his campaign stump speech. The company, he said, would drive up property taxes and strain Atlanta’s infrastructure by bringing a flood of newcomers to the state.

“I want Amazon to come because they want to be a part of Georgia and the culture that we have here in Georgia. Not because of the billions of dollars that they’re going to receive in Georgia,” he said.

“Who do you think is going to get those jobs? Do you think it’s the people who live in Georgia now who will get those jobs, those 50,000 jobs? I venture to say no,” he added. “Most of those jobs are going to be brought in from satellite campuses from the West Coast.”

Other Republican candidates in the race to replace Deal, who is term-limited, are broadly supportive of incentives — though reluctant to elaborate on where they would draw the line.

Lt. Gov. Cagle, the leading fundraiser in the race, praised the governor’s plan for a special session to decide the issue. And Brian Kemp, the secretary of state, said he expects lawmakers to approve the incentives “if they see fit.”

“But if we don’t get it, it’s not the end of the world for our state,” he said. “I will be a governor who will be just as excited about 50 jobs in Bainbridge as a corporate relocation in Buckhead in Atlanta.”

‘Turn our state blue?’

They’ll face scrutiny from conservative voters who form the backbone of the state’s GOP electorate.

Jim Jess of the Georgia Tea Party helps organize weekly meetings of conservative activists in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, and he said nary a gathering goes by without hand-wringing over the incentive package.

“All you have to do is mention Amazon, and the opinions come flooding out. How much are we going to pay to bring these people here? And are we really going to come out ahead?” he asked. “These questions need to be answered.”

Jess said many conservatives have another reason to mistrust a deal that could bring tens of thousands of workers from a company based in left-leaning Seattle.

“Some of the folks in our group are worried about core values,” he said. “Many ask, ‘Are they going to turn our state blue?’ ”

The Democratic contenders face their own pressure from voters concerned Georgia could lavish too much attention on Amazon while neglecting transportation gridlock, education funding and other problems facing Atlanta.

Stacey Abrams, who was once the state House’s top Democrat, called for a “smart combination of tax incentives and purposeful investment” to lure the firm. She said lawmakers should look no further than the state’s film tax credit, which has turned Georgia into a Hollywood hub.

Her top Democratic rival, former state Rep. Stacey Evans, used Amazon’s short list to demand lawmakers steer clear of legislation “that only pleases a small fragment of one party in this state.” She was referring to “religious liberty” measures that most of the GOP contenders have pledged to support.

Supporters say religious liberty laws would add a new layer of legal protection for people of faith, but critics say they could allow discrimination against groups such as gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

“We want to attract the next Delta, the next Coca-Cola. We cannot do that if we get sidetracked in this so-called religious liberty legislation,” Evans said. “It is wrongheaded. It will kill our business community. It will kill our tourism community. Not to mention the fact that it sends the message this state is open to hate and discrimination.”

‘We have to be competitive’

Any effort to pass a religious liberty measure stands little chance in Deal’s final year in office.

The governor vetoed a major religious liberty proposal in 2016, and during an interview Tuesday, he expressed deep-seated opposition to any similar measures that might be proposed during this legislative session. The governor said they could be “harmful” to the state’s chances of landing new corporate giants.

“It’s one of those things that presents a cloud over the minds of people who might otherwise be looking at our state. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes those are the realities that we all have to deal with,” he said. “I don’t see any reason at this point in time to create any potential impediments to job opportunities for our children and job opportunities for their children.”

State recruiters, meanwhile, are quietly preparing an incentive package if Georgia winds up as a top contender for Amazon. Pat Wilson, the head of the state’s economic development arm, was mum on the details but said the state had little other choice but to dangle lucrative offers — much like many of the other 19 finalists for the project.

“As long as everybody is giving incentives, we have to be competitive,” he said. “Georgia would do it for anyone who is creating jobs.”

Never miss a minute of what’s happening in Georgia Politics. Subscribe to PoliticallyGeorgia.com.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.