Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, answers questions Friday from the Senate Appropriations Committee. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Senate to vote Saturday on Georgia storm relief, jet-fuel tax bills

The Georgia Senate’s budget and tax committees on Friday approved both a tax break on jet fuel that would help Delta Air Lines and Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to clean up and rebuild southwest Georgia after Hurricane Michael devastated the area in October.

The approvals set up a final vote by the full chamber Saturday, two days after the House backed the measures. If the bills pass, lawmakers plan to adjourn the weeklong special session.

The bills would 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 jet-fuel tax break would save Delta about $40 million and other airlines millions more.

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 would provide matching funds required to obtain federal emergency aid. Other cleanup and repair costs would 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.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said it was fortunate that the storm occurred when the state economy was strong. With tax collections way up, he said, the state can afford to help southwest Georgia.

“Timing is so important to start getting relief out there,” she said.

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.

State Rep. Matt Gurtler, R-Tiger, was the only House member to vote against both hurricane relief bills.

“The stated goal was to help by sending funds to counties hardest hit,” Gurtler said Friday. “But, as often with government, not only is it not fit to help, the way we have allocated the help doesn’t fit within its proper role and is not in line with conservative principles. Therefore, I could not support the measure, even though I support the individuals.”

Gurtler noted that lawmakers could have approved the spending without a special session  that costs more than $40,000 a day. The General Assembly has a committee of leaders that can handle such requests.

“Not only do we waste tax dollars on bureaucracy with every action, but we also waste tax dollars on the debate on how much of those tax dollars we can spend,” he said.

He called the timber replanting tax break “a subsidy for a portion of the industry, for a limited area, under specific circumstances, and with a whole lot of expensive bureaucracy.”

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