Georgia House backs airport oversight instead of takeover

A Delta Air Lines jet prepares to take off as another jet approaches at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
A Delta Air Lines jet prepares to take off as another jet approaches at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The Georgia House on Thursday backed legislation to create an airport oversight committee as an alternative to a proposed state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, setting up negotiations with the Senate over one of the hottest political issues of the General Assembly’s 2019 session.

The measure, cobbled together by House leaders in recent days, also includes a tax break on jet fuel for air carriers such as Delta Air Lines and rural transportation legislation. It passed the House 104-70.

State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, the bill's House sponsor, told colleagues his proposal for legislative oversight over all commercial airports in Georgia was a measured counter to the Senate bid to have the state take over Hartsfield-Jackson.

He said the bill “goes to help address the core concern that we’ve heard a lot about” surrounding airport contracting “but does not go too far.”

City of Atlanta officials have vehemently opposed a Senate bill that would create a state authority to take over the Atlanta airport, and they have threatened to sue if such a measure becomes law. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms also voiced opposition to the idea of an oversight committee.

A spokesman for Bottoms, in a statement, said: “We remain opposed to a state takeover and the Senate majority’s attempted theft of the airport from the people of Atlanta.”

State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, proposed the airport takeover in the original bill, pointing to federal investigations of Atlanta City Hall and saying he believes there's a structural flaw in the city's governance of the airport.

During debate on the House floor, supporters of the oversight authority in the new bill said it could help improve the airport.

"If (Hartsfield-Jackson's) got a tarnish on its name, let's get it cleared up," said state Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, who also praised the airport in his speech to colleagues. "We need to make sure its reputation is beyond reproach."

However, state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, said she was concerned about how the oversight committee might be used.

“With the authority that this bill gives to the oversight committee, people with the wrong objectives can harass in my opinion these local airports,” Hugley said.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus, said he found the idea of an airport takeover unacceptable. But he said the new House legislation for an oversight committee "is one that can continue the dialogue," and he voted for the bill.

Senate Bill 131 would create the Airport Transparency Legislative Oversight Committee to review "operations, contracts, safety, financing, organization and structure" of commercial airports in Georgia.

It would apply to not just Hartsfield-Jackson, but also other commercial airports across the state with at least 300 commercial passengers boarding planes a year, including airports in Albany, Athens, Augusta, Brunswick, Columbus, Macon, Savannah and Valdosta.

The bill also includes a measure the House passed earlier this year to suspend jet-fuel taxes on airlines such as Delta for 20 years. The suspension would save airlines $35 million to $40 million a year. Most of the savings would go to Delta.

That proposal — backed by Gov. Brian Kemp — includes a small excise tax that would raise $3.5 million to $4 million a year and would be used as matching money to attract more federal funding. That money, in turn, would be used for projects at small airports, such as runway resurfacing.

The Senate, however, led the charge last year to kill another tax break on jet fuel after Delta cut marketing ties with the National Rifle Association, and senators this year moved to add a new, sizable excise tax, raising $120 million for about 100 small airports across the state. That means airlines such as Delta would see their fuel taxes increase.

Part of the negotiations in the coming days will be over how to rewrite the fuel-tax section to raise more money for small airports.

Knight, among those fighting for small-town airports, told colleagues Thursday that Florida and North Carolina spend far more than Georgia does on general aviation airports.

“Those airports are vital to us,” Knight said. “What we’ve got here is unacceptable. Put trust in us to work on this bill so we can make sure we have adequate funding for all airports.”

Advocates for small-town airports say they are important for economic development, and particularly for recruiting businesses.

Business executives "don't take Greyhound to Americus, Georgia, or Buena Vista, Georgia," said state Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, who is a pilot who uses general aviation airports.

The stitched-together measure also now includes House Bill 511, which would allow counties to raise sales taxes for public transportation. It would establish programs to aid unemployed residents who need transportation to find jobs.

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