By BEN NADLER and R.J. RICO
ATLANTA (AP) — Pro-gun Georgia lawmakers scored a political victory Thursday over Delta Air Lines, making good on Republican threats to deny the company a hefty tax break after it cut ties with the National Rifle Association in the wake of the deadly shooting at a Florida high school.
The state House and Senate within hours of each other passed a sweeping tax bill that Republicans had amended to strip out a sales tax exemption on jet fuel. Atlanta-based Delta would have been the prime beneficiary of the tax break, which would have been worth an estimated $38 million.
The political battle at the Georgia Capitol was the latest in a renewed debate over gun control and school safety after the Feb. 14 shooting. GOP Gov. Nathan Deal criticized the Delta controversy as an “unbecoming squabble” but said he would sign the broader tax measure in whatever form it passed.
The Senate’s presiding officer is Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who vowed Monday to stop any tax break that would benefit Delta — sparking a showdown at the state Capitol between gun-rights supporters and one of Georgia’s largest private employers.
The Delta provision barely came up in either legislative chamber during debate on the underlying tax bill, designed in part to reimburse Georgia taxpayers for $5.2 billion in extra state revenues expected in the next five years because of the recent federal tax changes approved by Congress.
A day after Deal blamed election-year posturing for Delta debate, Cagle took a softer tone in celebrating victory Thursday.
“Obviously the political environment does sometimes get a little testy, but in the end, it’s all about the product,” said Cagle, who is running this year to succeed the term-limited governor. “And the product we have today is something that all of us can be very proud of.”
Even as Deal sought Wednesday to minimize potential damage to Georgia’s business-friendly reputation, the GOP-dominated Senate Rules Committee chopped from the broader tax bill a provision to lift the state sales tax on jet fuel.
Rank-and-file Republicans in the Senate stood by Cagle’s threat to squash the jet fuel perk, which he announced Monday with a tweet that said: “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”
The chamber took up the full tax bill Thursday with a 34-15 vote to prohibit amendments, blocking any efforts to restore the Delta tax break. No Republicans opposed the parliamentary move.
The tax bill had previously passed the state House before the Delta-NRA controversy erupted, with the jet fuel exemption intact. But the House quickly approved the Senate’s version Thursday with a 135-24 vote.
“It’s been strenuous,” said GOP Sen. Michael Williams of Cumming, another candidate for governor. “We’ve been attacked by the media, we’ve been attacked by the left. Big corporate has gone after us. And we’ve stayed strong. We’ve even stayed strong against our own governor.”
Among Democrats voting against the tax bill was Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, who applauded companies that have taken swift actions on guns after the Florida shootings. She said Delta’s decision to end its NRA discounts swayed her to support the jet fuel tax break.
“The small steps that Delta and Dick’s Sporting Goods are taking, to take a stand and say enough is enough, is what we all need to be doing as adults,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “We’re the leaders of this state and we need to be coming together for solutions, not bullying corporations who are trying to do the right thing.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods had previously announced it would no longer sell assault-style weapons like the one used in the Florida shooting.
Deal, serving his last year in office, said he plans to sign the broader tax bill, even if it’s without the airline tax break he had pushed for. Deal said he will pursue exempting jet fuel from sales taxes separately.
That could be a tough sell with GOP leaders in the legislature. Though he refrained Thursday from further fiery rhetoric on Delta, Cagle showed no softening of his opposition to the jet fuel exemption.
“I think everyone knows my position on this issue, so I don’t see any wiggle room, no,” Cagle told reporters.
Delta’s decision to stop offering NRA members discounted fares was announced in the wake of the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting at a Florida high school. The airline employs 33,000 workers in Georgia. Its busy Atlanta hub has made Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport the busiest in the world.
Deal has said the broader tax bill “represents one of the single largest income tax reforms in the history of our state.” It would cut the top income tax rate for individuals and businesses from 6 to 5.75 percent in 2019, with the option for legislators to further cut it to 5.5 percent in 2020. It also doubles the standard deduction for all filers.