The Georgia House gave overwhelming backing Thursday to Gov. Nathan Deal’s nearly $500 million plan to help clean up and rebuild southwest Georgia after Hurricane Michael devastated the area in October.
The chamber also backed his proposal to continue a tax break on jet fuel that will mean a $40 million boost to Delta Air Lines.
The proposals now head to the Senate for a vote.
The bills allocate $270 million toward hurricane relief and provide $200 million worth of income tax credits to timber and pecan farmers for replanting trees they lost.
The House passed the spending measure 162-1, with state Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger, the only member opposing it. The House voted 157-2 for the replanting tax break, with Gurtler joined by state Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur. The jet-fuel tax break passed 141-18.
While lawmakers sustained Deal’s executive order suspending the state collection of jet-fuel taxes, they said their main aim for the weeklong special session is to help aid southwest Georgia.
“As a family of Georgians, when one Georgian hurts, we all hurt,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. “We were brought here … to address the needs of our hurting family.”
State Rep. Winfred Dukes, D-Albany, who represents a southwest Georgia district, said, “We are a resilient people, and we are working tirelessly to put our community back together.”
The spending measure — which would raise this year’s overall state budget to about $26.5 billion — would provide $69 million in emergency relief to local and state agencies, $69 million for debris removal, $55 million to assist farmers facing substantial crop losses and damage, $40 million to rebuild and help spur economic growth in the region affected by the storm, $20 million to address recovery and cleanup efforts by timberland owners, $9 million for damaged state facilities and $8.2 million to replace damaged firefighting equipment.
Some of the money will provide matching funds required to obtain federal emergency aid. Other cleanup and repair costs will be paid by the federal government, although state officials say it could be months, if not years, for that money to make it to Georgia.
Deal also had originally proposed some nonstorm-related spending: $35 million for a new technical college aviation academy in Paulding County and $9.3 million for the private Mercer School of Medicine to establish a campus in Columbus. But he asked lawmakers on Wednesday to redirect the money to storm relief.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said pecan farmers alone face losses estimated at $600 million. Many of the pecan trees and much of the business, he said, “has been vaporized from southwest Georgia.”
“The pecans are gone. We are the No. 1 pecan-producing state in the nation,” he said, “but we may not be able to say that again for a generation, if ever.”
State Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, described for House members Thursday the state of southwest Georgia’s economy.
“There is no cotton to gin, there is no timber to mill,” Taylor said. “The economic devastation is there. It’s not over. We want it to be over, but it will be a while before it’s over.”
State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, called it a “very, very good feeling” to pass the hurricane relief bills, saying they send a message to people in southwest Georgia that the state is prepared to help them.
“I view this more as a beginning rather than an ending of what we need to do down there,” he said. “This is going to be a long effort down there. But those are good, strong people, and they are going to bounce back and we are going to be with them.”
Ralston said he suspects lawmakers will take up more legislation to help the area when the General Assembly convenes for its regular session in January.
Action on the jet-fuel bill was needed because Deal signed an executive order this summer to suspend collections. Under state law, the General Assembly must ratify or reject such orders at the next legislative session.
The General Assembly appeared poised earlier this year to approve a tax break for all jet-fuel users until Delta broke marketing ties with the National Rifle Association, a move guaranteed to cause trouble in an election year. The air carrier’s 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 one of those candidates, was the most aggressive: His vow to block the legislation effectively killed it, despite Deal’s objection.
Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent word to lawmakers on Friday that the governor would only be asking them to approve the jet-fuel break through the end of the fiscal year, June 30. The governor would like it to continue longer, but members of the General Assembly will decide that when lawmakers convene for the regular session in January.
State Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, noted that the tax break has been tied to Delta, and he said the General Assembly had punished an entire industry for Delta’s stance on the NRA.
“It’s not the Delta jet-fuel exemption, it is the airline jet-fuel exemption,” Turner said. “This is a tax they are currently collecting, they are passing it on to their consumer. By voting for this, we are absolutely lowering taxes on the flying public.”
Ralston said last week that he wasn’t completely sold on the jet-fuel tax break. But he said the Delta team did a good job of convincing members of the need for it, making a case that Georgia was competing with states that charged lower or no jet-fuel taxes. Delta lobbyists have said the same thing for years.
When asked whether lawmakers were likely to extend the tax break again when they meet in January, Ralston replied: ”I think so. I think the argument they used is one that will be equally valid then.”
Then he added, “It’s a long way until then.”