A proposed state takeover of the city of Atlanta’s airport had seemed stalled in the Georgia House of Representatives after passing the Senate. But the proposal came roaring back to life Wednesday when, in a Senate subcommittee, it was added onto a different bill, HB 447, that extends a jet fuel tax break.
Delta Airlines’ chief executive has been vocally opposed to the airport takeover idea, but he’s supported a jet fuel tax break. This new bill shoves both ideas together, with some tweaks.
A spokesman for Delta said the company does not support this new bill: “By doubling the tax rate that airlines pay in the State of Georgia and making Georgia the highest jet fuel tax state in the country among States with hub airports, it would make the state less competitive and give commercial aviation reason to grow somewhere other than the state of Georgia.”
The changes did not go over well with the sponsor of the fuel tax break bill, Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, who says his original bill was “hijacked.”
In the Senate Finance committee, LaRiccia expressed his surprise.
“I literally received that sub about an hour ago. When it was my turn to sit down I got a copy of this sub,” he said. “There’s 12 pages of language added to the front of this bill that I thought I was bringing, 447.”
He was referring to the substance of SB 131, or the proposed state takeover of the airport, which was tagged onto the front of HB 447.
LaRiccia brought the original fuel tax break bill on behalf of Gov. Brian Kemp as his floor leader.
“The Governor’s intent was to extend that sunset out 20 years on the current law,” LaRiccia said. “The current law is no tax on jet fuel.”
The tax break was originally put in place when Delta was in financial trouble 13 years ago.
Last year, former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle undermined it in retaliation, after Delta broke an agreement with the National Rifle Association. Former Gov. Nathan Deal then reinstated the tax break by executive order and the legislature extended it during the special session in November.
The original HB 447 also included a half a penny excise tax back onto jet fuel, to dedicate funds for the state’s portion of the match required for aviation projects the federal government helps cover. LaRiccia explained that was the first time in history there would be any revenue dedicated for that purpose.
“Is it enough? I’ve said this many, many times: I haven’t met anybody up here yet that got enough of what they wanted. But it is a step in the right direction to try to fund rural airports,” he said.
The Senate’s substitute raised that excise tax to 10 cents per gallon, with a proposal from Sen. Tyler Harper, a pilot, who said it is designed to address a “shortfall” that exists between what the state’s regional airports need and can glean from taxes. Half a penny wouldn’t be enough, according to Harper.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, chair of the finance committee, agreed LaRiccia’s original proposal would not generate enough money for the state’s regional airports:
“The tax being dropped to what is was, was going to raise a little over $3 million to match with federal dollars,” he said. “We’ve got $260 million in needs for 2020 in our airport infrastructure around the state.”
LaRiccia argued this wasn’t a good idea and said it “could be the highest effective rate in the nation.”
Hufstetler also said they needed to mix the two bills to save the takeover proposal, since “it wasn’t getting a hearing in the House.”
How does he think this will shake out?
“It’s still going to go through the process and we’ll see what happens with it,” he said.
Kemp supported the original fuel tax break bill but had stayed noncommittal on the takeover idea. His office had no comment on how the new version changes their position.
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore has testified against the takeover idea and attended the committee meeting. She said she had gotten word this might happen. “These are mixing issues which is unnecessary,” she said of the bill’s edits. “But I certainly hope the mixing of the issues ends up being the complication that will keep it from being passed. That’s my hope.”
The bill passed out of the finance committee 5-4.