Georgia Senate approves state takeover of Atlanta airport

The Georgia Senate voted Thursday to approve a measure that would give the state control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a move that Atlanta's mayor said is tantamount to declaring war on the city.

The bill's Republican supporters say the switch is needed to protect the state's economic engine from corruption and mismanagement, and the indictment Wednesday of a longtime Atlanta contractor on bribery charges added fuel to the fire.

» Live: Use AJC tracker to follow Georgia bills

» Photos: Crossover Day at the Georgia Legislature

The measure, Senate Bill 131, passed by a 34-22 vote despite stiff opposition from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. City officials say the airport has become the world's busiest, and one of the most efficient, under Atlanta's oversight. And they say any takeover attempt will jeopardize the airport's finances and trigger a wave of litigation.

It now heads to the Georgia House, where it has a more uncertain fate. Gov. Brian Kemp, who has yet to take a formal stance on the measure, said in an interview that he’s monitoring the debate.

"I'm still where I was: I'm watching the process," Kemp said in an interview. "I've spoken with the mayor and I've spoken with (the bill's Senate sponsor) Burt Jones. We'll wait and see. We're still doing the due diligence."

The bill passed after more than an hour of emotional debate between Republican backers of the measure and a core of Democrats who vehemently oppose it.

Jones, made his case for the bill as he unfurled a copy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featuring a front-page article about the indictment of contractor Jeff Jafari.

"Once again another indictment, charge of corruption," said Jones, a Jackson Republican. "It always has brought me to the conclusion that someone should look into those instances that have been going on there, causing so much… really embarrassment to the state of Georgia as a whole."

Democrats say the state has no legal right to take control of the airport that the city still controls. One opponent after another described how the airport has become one of the leading economic engines for the state under city oversight — and that state oversight won’t necessarily prevent corruption.

"It's hard to get anybody to come to the table that already owns the table. Atlanta owns this airport. Some of us in here may not like that, but they do," said state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, who later added: "When we start talking about ethics, I don't think our hands are clean in here either."

The bill includes language that would provide an out from a state airport takeover— if the city and the Georgia General Assembly agree on a “joint governance plan” by July 2020, in which case the airport takeover act would be repealed.

It passed after a series of amendments brought by Democrats failed. They included an effort to require any public officials who own land within three miles of a major airport to disclose it, and another to oust members of the new authority who fail to follow the requirements.

‘Big stakes stuff’

The state’s push for control of Atlanta’s airport has simmered for decades, with supporters often sounding the refrain that the crown jewel of the region’s economy needs more oversight. But this was the first time it has gotten this far in the legislative process.

The momentum behind the measure is a sign of how vastly city-state relations have changed since Kemp took office.

When a similar measure surfaced last year, Gov. Nathan Deal joined with Democrats to ground it before it could lift off. Kemp has taken a more hands-off approach.

Even if it becomes law, city and airport officials say there are a number of barriers that could block a state takeover -- starting with federal regulations.

The Federal Aviation Administration will not allow a takeover of an airport without the current operator’s consent, unless there is a final judicial decision requiring the change or other resolution of the dispute. That policy was set after North Carolina in 2013 tried to take over Charlotte’s airport.

After years of litigation, the FAA set a policy restricting hostile takeovers of airports. And today, the city of Charlotte still owns and operates Charlotte-Douglas International Airport.

Other problems include language in bond documents that could leave to a wave of legal problems. And a lease with Delta Air Lines, which also opposes the takeover, could block a change in control of the airport.

If the airport were taken over by the state, “the big stakes poker here is probably mostly on the procurement side,” said Steve Van Beek, an airport consultant and head of North American aviation for Steer. Contractors with decades-long relationships with the city would see a different mix of decision-makers.

"The two big questions all this begs is, Is it just a political power play?" Van Beek said. Or is it "an evaluation of the current management or structure of the city of Atlanta?"

“It’s really big stakes stuff.”

» Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at