Analysis: Why Kemp’s open-ended special session could rev up state’s feud with Atlanta

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp greets President Donald Trump as he visits Georgia to talk about an infrastructure overhaul at the UPS Hapeville hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday July 15, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

'It's Groundhog Day," says one lawmaker

Gov. Brian Kemp’s call for a special legislative session later this year promises to focus on a tax break for Georgians still recovering from Hurricane Michael. But he made clear that he could also ask lawmakers to “address other budgetary and oversight issues.”

Such sessions are rare, and not typically driven by what Kemp outlined: Fear of a legal challenge due to an incorrect tracking number that the governor said was no “fatal flaw” and that could presumably be fixed when lawmakers return for their regular gathering in January.

Political circles immediately buzzed over what else would drive Kemp to summon legislators back to the Capitol during a worsening pandemic. And speculation soon seized on the word “oversight” in Kemp’s five-paragraph message to legislators about the session.

The governor has engaged in a legal feud for much of the last month with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms over the city’s mask mandate and other coronavirus restrictions. The negotiations over a settlement, we’re told, are plodding along.

The mayor’s top priority in the state Capitol is a matter of defense rather than offense: She vigorously opposes any effort by the state to assert control over how the city runs Hartsfield-Jackson’s busy airport.

April 9, 2020 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: A nearly empty street leaving the airport for Atlanta at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday April 9, 2020. Coronavirus figures (updated April 8, 7pm): Deaths: 369 | Hospitalized: 2,082 | Confirmed cases: 10,189.  The AJC is covering the coronavirus outbreak with a focus on what it means to Atlanta and Georgia.  JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
April 9, 2020 Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: A nearly empty street leaving the airport for Atlanta at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Thursday April 9, 2020. Coronavirus figures (updated April 8, 7pm): Deaths: 369 | Hospitalized: 2,082 | Confirmed cases: 10,189. The AJC is covering the coronavirus outbreak with a focus on what it means to Atlanta and Georgia. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

So much so that she ensured there was language in the national Democratic Party platform, which would ostensibly guide Joe Biden if he wins the presidency, that outright opposes any “partisan power grabs” of public infrastructure projects like Atlanta’s crown jewel.

ExploreUnder Bottoms' watch, national Democratic platform discourages Atlanta airport takeover

Kemp has never publicly endorsed the airport takeover bid. In fact, records show he privately opposed a push by Senate Republicans last year to hand the state control of the project.

But he also didn’t stop it from nearly passing the Legislature, which he could have thwarted with a few choice words or a veto threat.

Now, in the middle of an unraveling relationship with Bottoms, some of the half-dozen senior GOP officials interviewed late Wednesday predict that Kemp could be more inclined to endorse the idea.

Others see the specter of the legislation as a bargaining chip for the governor in settlement negotiations with Bottoms over the lawsuit he brought.

ExploreAnalysis: Behind the rift between Atlanta's mayor and Georgia's governor

No ‘big deal’

Officially, Kemp said he was compelled to call lawmakers back because of “legitimate questions” involving an incorrect tracking number in House Bill 105, which includes a tax break for federal payments for victims of the storm.

Rick Ruskell, the General Assembly’s legislative counsel, said in an interview he was asked about the issue that Kemp cited before the bill was passed and that he believes no fix is needed.

“It had no impact on the bill that was duly passed by both legislative chambers. I don’t see any problem with the legislative process of the bill,” he said. “I’m confident that the bill as passed was clear.”

In a joint statement, House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said they also don’t think the measure is legally problematic – and they threatened to use the special session to override his veto of a separate healthcare bill.

That measure, House Bill 991, would have created a new board to scrutinize state healthcare contractors, which the two legislative leaders said would bring “critical oversight to taxpayer dollars.”

They would need two-thirds approval of both chambers to reverse the veto by Kemp, who said in a statement he nixed the bill because it violated the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Some lawmakers chafed at the thought of returning to the Legislature during a pandemic, a process that will last at least a week and require safety protocol such as socially distanced voting, even if it only involved the hurricane relief bill.

06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Senators embrace in the Senate Chambers after the legislative session ended  on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
06/26/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Georgia Senators embrace in the Senate Chambers after the legislative session ended on Sine Die, day 40, of the legislative session in Atlanta, Friday, June 26, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

State Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican who sponsored the measure, didn’t object to Kemp’s call though he said he was advised the issue he referenced “wasn’t a big deal.”

“There’s a lot going on in the world today, so who’s to say we weren’t going to have a special session anyway. We’ve waited two years for this money and it’s just now starting to come in. It’s vitally important we get this right.”

Building a history

If Kemp pushes the airport measure, the calculus gets tricky. His office declined to comment and the timing of the session remains unclear.

A full-scale state takeover attempt would take years of litigation and bureaucratic wrangling. Factor in the potential of a President Biden, who would surely direct federal authorities to side with the city, and any push for state control of the airport would be nixed.

But scaled-back plans for an oversight board – there’s that word again – could presumably be more swiftly implemented. And, several lawmakers noted, it wouldn’t be the first time a special session for Hurricane Michael relief was also used for other purposes.

As the AJC’s James Salzer reports, then-Gov. Nathan Deal called the General Assembly back to Atlanta in 2018 to provide state support for the storm’s victims. But lawmakers also tacked on a tax break on aviation fuel that benefited Delta Air Lines and other carriers that Deal had long sought.

“It’s Groundhog Day all over again,” quipped state Rep. Terry Rogers, R-Clarkesville. “I love history because it’s always repeating itself. And we must be building a lot of history this year because we just keep on repeating it over and over.”

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