Opinion: Another attempt at a state takeover of Atlanta’s airport? Don’t bet on it

July 22, 2020 Atlanta - Social distancing signs are  displayed as Delta customers wait on Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)


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July 22, 2020 Atlanta - Social distancing signs are displayed as Delta customers wait on Concourse A at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Wednesday, July 22, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Only a few days ago, while going through work files that had made their way into the basement, I came across a 2002 memo from Delta Air Lines, explaining why it opposed an effort by state GOP lawmakers to end the city of Atlanta’s direct control of its airport.

In times of upheaval, we latch onto the familiar and unchanging. Things like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, old Motown hits, and attempts to expand centralized government authority.

Perhaps this is why,18 years later and in the midst of a national financial crisis, a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is again being hinted at.

“Hinted” is an important word, as will be explained in a bit.

Earlier this month, as an aside in a bill-signing message, Gov. Brian Kemp wrote that he had, in fact, decided to put his signature to House Bill 105, a measure to secure tax exemptions for Hurricane Michael victims. Nonetheless, the governor had found a tiny flaw in the bill — which he placed on the shoulders of inattentive lawmakers — that would mandate a special session “in the coming weeks.”

Perhaps you think that sounds contrived. Others do, too.

But “other budgetary and oversight issues” might be tackled as well, Kemp said. Which immediately gave rise to rumors that yet another effort to put a state authority over Hartsfield-Jackson was in the works. State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, author of the 2019 measure that passed the Senate, even let it be known that he was already counting votes.

Yet Governor Kemp has stayed mum on the airport topic.

Arm-twisting that remains theoretical often works better than a concrete threat. Kemp has been waging a legal battle with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose city government (like many other Georgia municipalities) defied the governor by enacting a mask mandate. Kemp dropped his lawsuit on Thursday, citing the mayor’s intransigence in mediation sessions ordered by a Fulton County judge.

But it is only a respite. The governor will be back with a re-written executive order by Saturday, specifying that local governments can’t order private businesses – restaurants and bars included -- to mask up.

As for whether this rumored takeover of Atlanta’s airport will remain a hidden cudgel in the fight — do not count on it. The calendar and mathematical fractions argue against it.

There’s also the fact that House Speaker David Ralston has no interest in it. “I don’t know if a special session is the time to take up airport oversight. It’s a big issue – and one we don’t need to rush on,” Ralston said in an interview.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that Kemp’s special session won’t happen at all.

One thing we have learned about our current governor is that his decision-making circle of advisors is tight. Neither Ralston nor Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, both fellow Republicans, were given more than an hour’s advance notice of Kemp’s plan to call legislators to Atlanta.

The leaders of both chambers immediately fielded calls from GOP lawmakers with Democratic opposition on the November ballot, who would lose both time and money in a fall session of the Legislature – when collecting campaign contributions would be prohibited.

That was one calendar concern. The other is economic.

Only days ago, Delta asked another 3,000 flight attendants to take unpaid leave or other options. They would join more than 17,000 employees at the airline who have already taken buyouts or early retirements. Another 41,000 have volunteered for unpaid leaves.

Pandemics require people to stop moving. Delta and other airlines have survived thus far on $25 billion in rescue funds passed by Congress in March. In accepting the money, the airlines agreed to furlough restrictions that are set to expire Sept. 30.

In a letter written last week, a bipartisan group of senators, including Richard Burr, R-N.C., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., urged Senate leaders to extend the airline assistance program. (Georgia’s David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler were not among the signatories, but that is a matter for another day.)

The point is that, given the current dysfunction in Congress, we could have a state Capitol squabbling over the spoils of Hartsfield-Jackson even as several thousand more airline workers step into the abyss of unemployment.

And that would not be a good look.

But I mentioned that there was a mathematical problem, too, didn’t I?

Upon receiving notice of Governor Kemp’s intentions, Speaker Ralston and Lieutenant Governor Duncan announced that the first order of business in a special session would be a veto override of HB 991, a measure intended to put a closer watch on state health care contracts. Kemp had rejected the bill as a trespass on executive turf.

This week, legal counsel for the General Assembly green-lighted the override threat. Especially, he said, if the governor employs the word “oversight” in his call.

A veto override requires a two-thirds vote in both House and Senate. A two-thirds vote in either chamber requires Democratic cooperation. Democratic cooperation would require that an airport takeover bill stay as dead as Kanye West’s electoral chances.

“If there was created some negative attitudes over the airport or anything else, it could cost support for overriding 991,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, confirmed.

That’s now the bargain: A special session to fix a typo in a bill, at the expense of an embarrassing and bipartisan veto override — and no airport vote. Here’s betting that the price of a special session has risen far too high for the governor.

One more thought: Kemp’s decision to drop his lawsuit against Bottoms and Atlanta may also be recognition of an oncoming reality. The friendship between Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed worked because both had something to offer — Deal had access to Republicans in Congress, and Reed was a pathway to the White House and President Barack Obama.

Should President Trump lose in November, the mayor of Atlanta would again be an essential link between Georgia and the federal government. Playing nice would be a requirement.

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