Georgia Senate gives final approval to storm relief, airline tax bills

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. JASON GETZ

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Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville. JASON GETZ

Less than nine months after state lawmakers shelved a tax break for airlines such as Delta when the company snubbed the National Rifle Association, all was forgiven Saturday.

Breaking marketing ties with the NRA in an election year was a no-no in February. But the election is over and the Georgia Senate on Saturday gave final approval to Gov. Nathan Deal's suspension of a jet-fuel tax, a move that saves Delta about $40 million a year.

Lawmakers also gave a final OK to the announced reason for the unusual November special session: a $470 million package of aid, backfill funding and tax breaks for reforestation to help Hurricane Michael-ravaged southwest Georgia.

The House overwhelmingly backed the hurricane relief and jet-fuel bills Thursday, and the Senate followed up Saturday on votes of 52-0 for two storm bills and 43-9 on the jet-fuel measure.

The Senate took up the measures early Saturday because some lawmakers planned later in the day to attend the funeral of House Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, who died early Tuesday, the first day of the special session.

Deal called the session on Nov. 9 to provide relief for southwest Georgia, which was hammered by Hurricane Michael in October. Much of the region’s farm- and timber-based economy was ruined.

But because lawmakers were brought back into session, they also had to take up executive orders Deal had signed since the last session ended in March. Deal leaves office in January.

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 NRA, 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 made two moves after the session in response: The state stopped collecting the local portion of the jet-fuel tax on July 1, and then later in the month, the governor signed an executive order suspending collections of the state portion of the tax.

The General Assembly didn't need to meet to provide funding for southwest Georgia storm relief: A committee of House and Senate leaders could have done that. But without a session, it would have had to wait until January to consider Deal's executive order.

Delta lobbyists have maintained that Georgia’s jet-fuel tax is the fourth-highest among the 21 states with large airline hub airports. Some states currently don’t collect a jet-fuel tax.

"It puts us at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis other states," said state Sen. Larry Walker, R-Perry, who carried the bill for Deal.

Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, sent word to lawmakers Nov. 9, a few days before the special session, 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 Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who has opposed the jet-fuel tax break — as well as some other industry tax breaks — voted against it again Saturday. He called it "corporate welfare" for an industry making billions of dollars in profits.

“Bad public policy is bad public policy,” McKoon said. “The Legislature seated in January should decide this issue.”

McKoon said low- and middle-income Georgians are among those who have to make up the difference to fund government services — including airport improvements — when an industry gets a tax break.

“Why should they subsidize an industry they cannot even afford to utilize?” he said.

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, a pilot, called it a "disgrace" that even though the state has collected jet-fuel taxes in the past, it has invested less in airport upgrades than South Carolina.

State Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, said the Legislature needs to do a better job of vetting such tax breaks — the jet-fuel measure made it through five days after the bill was filed. Such measures typically take most of a 40-day regular session to win final approval.

“We have to do better in terms of telling our people why we are doing this,” Jones said.

In a statement after the vote, Delta said: “The General Assembly’s vote to support Governor Deal’s executive order to suspend the tax on jet fuel will level the playing field with other states and position Georgia airports for continued passenger and cargo growth. We want to thank Governor Deal and the General Assembly for their vision and leadership that continues to make Georgia a great state for business, and we are proud to call Georgia our home.”

The other 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.

Deal and lawmakers said they couldn’t wait until the General Assembly convenes in January to begin providing help to the region.

The spending measure — which would raise this year’s overall state budget to about $26.5 billion — would, among other things, 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, and $20 million to address recovery and cleanup efforts by timberland owners.

"The amount of money we are putting toward the farmers … in our world of agriculture, that's a drop in the bucket," said state Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge. "That's a start. The economy (of southwest Georgia) will probably never recover from this."

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.

State House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he expects that the General Assembly will have to consider more spending and legislation to help southwest Georgia in the regular session.

General Assembly special session

The Georgia Senate on Saturday gave final approval to all three major elements of Gov. Nathan Deal’s call for a special session:

  • A $270 million package of spending to clean up and repair areas of southwest Georgia devastated in October by Hurricane Michael
  • A 10-year, $200 million tax break for farmers and landowners designed to get them to replant trees in the region
  • A suspension of the collection of jet-fuel taxes through June 30, a measure that could save Delta Air Lines $40 million

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