A Delta Air Lines jet takes off. AJC file.

Georgia Senate vows to ground Delta tax break after NRA decision

The Georgia Senate’s leaders vowed to block a lucrative tax break bill on Monday that would benefit Delta Air Lines days after the air carrier severed ties with the National Rifle Association, setting up a showdown between state Republicans and the state’s largest private employer.

The measure was effectively grounded after Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he wouldn’t support the $50 million jet fuel sales tax exemption unless the Atlanta-based airline reverses its decision to end discounted rates for NRA members. He joined a chorus of conservatives who opposed the measure after Delta announced its decision Saturday.

Delta officials tried to stem the GOP revolt in a statement that circulated around the statehouse on Monday saying the company is a supporter of the Second Amendment with a “neutral” stance on a gun debate that sharpened this month after the mass shooting at a Florida high school.

It also noted a past decision to withdraw its sponsorship of a theater that depicted the assassination of President Donald Trump as evidence it has also rejected left-leaning groups.

But the company’s assertion that it wanted to stay out of a “politically and emotionally charged issue” prompted snickering from some conservatives who noted the airline has a history of trying to influence state policies.

“We need to see what Delta can offer us because they took a big misstep here,” said state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “And I hope they can find some way to rectify the situation.”

Of kowtowing and vilifying

The measure’s tailspin was a blow to Gov. Nathan Deal and other supporters of the tax break, who say it’s needed to help keep Atlanta competitive with other airline hubs that do not charge air carriers sales taxes for fuel purchases.

The governor pushed to include the tax break in a broader measure that reduces the state’s income tax rate, and that package passed the House last week by a hefty margin. He met with Senate Republicans early Monday to try to ease their concerns, but by then the outcry had reached full pitch.

Several candidates for higher office and conservative groups came out against the idea over the weekend. They included three GOP candidates for the state’s top job: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, businessman Clay Tippins and state Sen. Michael Williams.

And House Speaker David Ralston signaled he could withdraw his support for the proposal, saying he was disappointed that corporate giants waded into the debate by “vilifying law-abiding supporters of Second Amendment rights.”

Monday’s opposition from Cagle, another Republican running for governor, seemed to seal the tax break’s fate. He said lawmakers should not help corporations that “kowtow to the type of political pressure that comes against conservative values.”

“I’m tired of conservatives being kicked around on our values. It’s time we stand up and fight and show corporations that conservative values are important, not just to Georgia but to the entire nation,” he said. “We can fight for jobs, but we can also fight for values.”

Democrats, largely regulated to the sidelines on the debate, painted their counterparts as bumbling base-pleasers. The Democratic Governors Association said the Delta snub was part of a broader “job-killing race to the right” in Georgia. And Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson called Republicans hypocrites.

“Republican leaders said Delta tax cuts created jobs that were good for business,” said Henson, a Democrat from Tucker. “But Republican fear of the NRA is evidently more important than the Georgia business climate, jobs or the well-being of Georgia citizens.”

‘Do the right thing’

Delta has angled for years to restore the tax break, which would save the company about $40 million annually. It was first adopted in the mid-2000s when the company was struggling, but lawmakers nixed it in 2015 when Delta officials got on the wrong side of lawmakers looking for extra cash for infrastructure improvements.

The airline hired Deal’s former executive counsel as its top state lobbyist and won support from the governor and some legislative leaders by pitching it as an “airline tax break” rather than one that would exclusively help Delta.

As the airline struggled over the fallout, Republican candidates for higher office seized on the Delta tax break as a juicy political issue to rev up the party’s grass-roots base.

Former state Sen. Rick Jeffares, a candidate for lieutenant governor, came out against the tax break proposal on Saturday hours after Delta announced its NRA decision.

“We helped Delta out with this tax cut back when they were struggling. That’s what partners do,” he said. “This time, they attacked 100,000 Georgians while asking for $40 million of their tax dollars at the same time. That was wrong and I’m glad it was stopped short.”

Williams reminded his supporters that he had long opposed the tax break — he sent out a statement condemning it days before the NRA decision — and said Delta should not “receive a government handout” even if it reverses its NRA decision.

Tippins, a first-time candidate, had a similar approach. He delivered nearly 2,000 petitions to Cagle’s office on Monday and called on lawmakers to reject the tax break regardless of Delta’s response.

“I’m pro-business, but businesses need to have a level playing field,” Tippins said. “This hit people in their gut. It’s about fairness.”

Cagle, for his part, said a Delta reversal would go “ a long way” toward placating angry Republicans.

“I’m confident Delta wants to do the right thing,” he said.

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