February was supposed to be a good month for Delta Air Lines at the Georgia Capitol. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has been backing a tax bill that would give the company, which is headquartered in Georgia, a multimillion-dollar subsidy to purchase jet fuel, a benefit it lost in 2015.
Populists on the left and right were fighting to remove the giveaway from the tax package, House Bill 821, but Deal’s backing made it almost certain the company would once again be receiving taxpayer cash.
That changed over the weekend.
On Saturday, Delta joined a number of other corporations in cutting ties with the National Rifle Association, ending the NRA’s contract for discounted rates through Delta’s group travel program.
Delta is reaching out to the NRA to let them know we will be ending their contract for discounted rates through our group travel program. We will be requesting that the NRA remove our information from their website.
— Delta (@Delta) February 24, 2018
The move was applauded by gun control advocates, who see it as one success in a larger campaign to politically isolate the NRA following the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. But by aligning with opponents of the NRA, Delta placed itself in hot water in Georgia.
Conservatives, enraged at Delta’s stance against the leading gun rights organization, rallied and demanded the legislature kill the proposed tax break for jet fuel, which would primarily benefit Delta.
The same day Delta announced it would be breaking with the NRA, Republican state Sen. Michael Williams — a longtime foe of Delta’s subsidies and the most populist candidate in the upcoming GOP gubernatorial primary — called on the Senate to kill the company’s giveaway.
Delta has now insulted every Georgia member of the NRA. They clearly don’t value us & don’t deserve our handout.
— Michael Williams (@williamsforga) February 24, 2018
Debbie Dooley, a leading tea party activist in the state, also took to social media to denounce lawmakers pushing to maintain Delta’s subsidies, including Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, another Republican candidate for governor.
If @CaseyCagle doesn't stop Delta's corporate welfare, then we will know he isn't really pro NRA, pro 2nd Amendment. That goes for GOP Senate Leadership as well. It will be a campaign issue if it isn't stopped. #gapol I think we already know that Gov. Deal isn't pro 2nd…
— Debbie Dooley (@Crimsontider) February 25, 2018
Some establishment Republicans then joined in, including yet another candidate in the competitive GOP gubernatorial race, former state Attorney General Brian Kemp:
I oppose the proposed tax break because it puts special interests – not hardworking Georgians – 1st. Even after spending countless $$$ on lobbying & campaign contributions, the jet fuel tax exemption remains a raw deal for GA taxpayers. https://t.co/qFTrAKHI62 #gafirst #gapol
— Brian Kemp (@BrianKempGA) February 26, 2018
On Monday, Cagle, whose campaign has been supported by Delta and its lobbyists, came out with the same position.
I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.
— Casey Cagle (@CaseyCagle) February 26, 2018
Dooley quickly responded with a tweet thanking Cagle for “standing with the 2nd Amendment.”
As lieutenant governor, Cagle is president of the Senate and oversees the movement of legislation. His legislative position coupled with the fact that he is the favorite for the GOP primary means that Delta’s tax break is now likely dead on arrival.
Williams had been fighting against the subsidy for weeks, demanding that Senate leadership take it out of the legislation. But his efforts were in vain until Delta cut ties with the NRA.
He told The Intercept in an interview that lawmakers were deluged with phone calls, and that Republican Senate leadership took a whip count among its members over the issue. “Basically all the Republican senators were asked, ‘If Delta apologizes, would you support the tax bill, the tax credit for Delta?'” Williams said. “There were enough senators that said they would, which basically gave Casey the courage to come out and say that.”
In many ways, the episode is similar to one that occurred in 2015.
That year, Delta condemned a religious liberty bill in Georgia that many worried would serve as a license to discriminate. The legislature responded by ending the tax break on jet fuel, of which Delta was the biggest beneficiary. (The company earned a subsidy of more than $16 million from it.) The tax break was originally enacted in 2005, when the company was in peril of bankruptcy. By 2015, the company was financially healthy, and many questioned the need to continue subsidizing it. The backlash against its position on the religious liberty bill was the final straw for the legislature.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers have sought to reinstate the fuel tax subsidy. The tax bill they have been moving since early February would have enacted an exemption from sales taxes and some other local taxes on jet fuel. That is the provision NRA supporters are demanding be killed.
In that demand, they are joined by some to their left, like the Democrats who run Clayton County, home to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The county has been fighting the provision, arguing that it stands to lose tens of millions of dollars for public projects. One estimate finds that the county would lose $20 million a year, with about half of that coming out of the school system, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.
Williams plans to oppose Delta’s subsidy regardless of whether it reverses course on the NRA issue, calling it an example of the “crony capitalism” he opposes. He noted, however, that Republican leadership is doing another whip count to see if lawmakers would oppose the tax credit even if Delta apologizes. “But we have not gotten the whip count back yet,” he said.