Airport Takeover Idea Gets New Legs In Final Days Of Ga. Legislative Session

State Sen. Burt Jones presents his proposal for the state to take over operational control of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to the House Rules Committee on Wednesday.

Emma Hurt / WABE

Earlier this month, the Georgia Senate approved a proposal for the state to take over operational control of the city of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, despite strong opposition from the city and Delta Air Lines. That idea was then added into a different bill, HB 447, which had originally proposed a jet fuel tax break for airlines.

The new version both increased taxes on airlines and added in the airport takeover.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler said at the time that the reason to add in the takeover language was because the takeover bill didn’t seem likely to get a hearing in the House.

Well, on Wednesday afternoon, the Georgia House did give it a hearing and offered a different version of the original bill, SB 131. Instead of a full takeover, Rep. Kevin Tanner proposed an oversight committee (watch here) comprised of lawmakers to evaluate ethics, procurement, public safety and efficiency at 10 of the state’s largest airports, including Hartsfield-Jackson, Savannah International Airport and Middle Georgia Regional Airport.

He also added in the original fuel tax break language supported by Gov. Brian Kemp and the airlines, as well as his own HB 511, which proposes an overhaul of rural transit and didn’t progress past the Senate transportation committee after opposition from the Department of Transportation.

Tagging legislation together in the final days of the session is a common practice by lawmakers to squeeze things through.

So the airport takeover idea is now alive in two different forms in the General Assembly with two different chances to pass before midnight Tuesday.

The idea behind the state takeover has been to prevent corruption scandals, which Atlanta and its airport have encountered. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Burt Jones, said there is a “structural flaw” in the airport’s governance structure that increases the chance of corruption because it consolidates power in the mayor’s office.

City and airport officials strongly disagree that there’s any need for the takeover, calling those past scandals ancient history.

But in response to the oversight committee idea? The city’s Chief Procurement Officer David Wilson testified that an extra layer of oversight would be “unnecessary” and could “slow the [procurement] process,” to the detriment of the airport and the businesses working with it.

A spokesman for the city, Michael Smith, said of the new proposal: “Hartsfield-Jackson is the best airport in the world, and the city of Atlanta got it there. There is no reason whatsoever for any state oversight. We remain opposed to a state takeover and the Senate majority’s attempted theft of the airport from the people of Atlanta.”

Delta Air Lines, on the other hand, is more supportive of the House substitute proposal. A spokesman said the company is “appreciative that under the amended legislation Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport will remain under the control of the city of Atlanta with which we have a long-standing and successful partnership.”

A group of unionized Transportation Security Administration employees at Hartsfield-Jackson protested both proposals at the Capitol on Thursday.

American Federation of Government Employees Local 540 President Shekina Givens said employees are worried about anything that would change the way things work at the airport, particularly involving the traditionally union-unfriendly state.

“If it was something truly in the best interest of the people and the best interest in one of the best-ran airports in the world, then why is it a sneak attack? Back and forth and back and forth to pull it from one place to the next,” she said. “Trying to take something you didn’t create, something you didn’t build, is asinine.”

In the rules committee, other representatives questioned Tanner about how other airports and localities would feel about being brought under new oversight. Republican Rep. Tanner explained his proposal to Democratic Rep. Carolyn Hugley in committee, saying, “Hopefully you would agree this would be better than a takeover of the airport.”

Hugley responded: “I certainly agree this is a measured response, and it’s better than a takeover of the Atlanta airport, but people in the country would say, ‘Now you just going to meddlin’.’”

Tanner said he hoped to “have those conversations” with those localities as the process moved along.

The bill now needs to be scheduled for a vote on the House floor and agreed to by the Senate.