Georgia Senate Passes State Airport Takeover Bill

The Georgia State Senate approved a proposal to create a state authority to take control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Mike Stewart / Associated Press

By a vote of 34-22, the Georgia State Senate approved a contentious proposal to create a state authority to take control of the City of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. There is an option in the bill for the state and city to work out a “joint governance plan” instead, by the summer of 2020.

The city has remained strongly opposed to this measure from the beginning.

“State Senators that usually champion small government and local control have made a sweeping power grab to take what they did not build,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Thursday.

She called it “an unnecessary and irresponsible affront to the City that could destroy what has been a productive, cooperative relationship with the State of Georgia.”

State Sen. Burt Jones sponsored the bill and led a Senate study committee on the issue. The Republican said corruption scandals that have plagued City Hall are “an embarrassment to the state of Georgia as a whole when you look at the full picture,” and has called them indicative of a “structural flaw.”

Jones argued that a state authority board would address the problem by putting power in a group of people an “arms-length” away from politics. The bill proposes an authority board with appointees from the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the house. A last-minute amendment added two appointees made by the government of Clayton County, where the airport is located.

The airport’s General Manager John Selden said in a previous interview a state authority board would also be influenced by politics.

“If the airport was run by the state, in reality, the governor would run the commission,” he said. “He’s controlling the airport. There’s always somebody who’s in charge. Eventually there’s one person in charge.”

Gov. Brian Kemp has remained non-committal about his support for the measure. His Senate floor leaders supported it, but Kemp’s office indicated they did not speak for the governor on this issue.

“Thirty Senators signed the legislation,” a spokesman for Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan, Joseph Hendricks, said of the measure.” Off the bat, this bill had enough support to pass the Senate.”

Jones also argued a state authority would be able to explore the need for a second airport in metro Atlanta as the region grows, which the City has historically opposed.

“At some point in time we need an entity that will be willing to look at other venues for a second hub, because while there are plenty of successes that can be talked about under the city model, there’s plenty of flaws as well when it comes to procurement and vendor selection process,” he said.

Selden has said the airport has much room to grow.

The Senate spent more than two hours debating both sides of the bill. State Sen. Renee Unterman supported the proposal.

“ATL this is not your ATM anymore. You need to come to the table,” she said. “You need to come to the table. Let’s talk about an authority. This is not your private bank account.”

In response to that, Sen. Emanuel Jones said, “It’s hard to get anybody to come to the table that already owns the table. Atlanta owns this airport. Some of us in here might not like that but they do. Atlanta invested years and years of resources into developing this airport. Now it’s a model for the rest of the country. It’s the number one airport in this country.”

Jones argued it sets a dangerous precedent.

“Do we want to start taking over school boards because their superintendents are racist and having problems educating their students? Do we want to get in that business?”

Mayor Bottoms called the bill “a sweeping power grab to take what [the state] did not build” and an “attempted act of larceny.”

“There is no economic rationale for this theft,” she said. “This very conversation not only risks destabilizing existing development and investment at the airport, but threatens existing and future job growth for both the City and State.”