In a show of political strength, Georgia lawmakers on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that was stripped of an earlier provision granting Delta Air Lines a lucrative tax break.
By passing the bill, lawmakers carried out the threat that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) made to Atlanta-based Delta earlier this week: If the airline did not restore discounted fares to members of the National Rifle Association, Republicans would strike down a $50 million sales-tax exemption on jet fuel from its larger tax-cut package. Delta, which is one of the state’s largest employers, would have been the primary beneficiary of the exemption.
Cagle threatened Delta days after it announced it would stop offering discounted fares to NRA members amid the national gun-control debate after the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. United Airlines, Best Western, MetLife and at least a dozen other companies also cut perks and discounts to NRA members.
“I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA,” Cagle tweeted on Monday. “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”
The bill granting the tax exemption on jet fuel was easily approved in the House last week, and appeared to have wide support. Advocates said it would attract flights to Atlanta as opposed to other major airports, where jet-fuel taxes are charged. But in the days since Delta’s announcement, other Georgia Republicans rallied behind Cagle, and the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday voted to remove the jet-fuel exemption from the tax-cut package.
Cagle, who has served as Georgia’s lieutenant governor since 2007, could weave the issue into his campaign in Georgia’s upcoming gubernatorial race, in which he is considered the leading GOP contender to replace Gov. Nathan Deal (R). Deal this week said he would reluctantly support the measure because of the bill’s broader cuts to the state’s income tax rate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Delta has not commented on the threat from Cagle, who says he is “a lifelong member of the NRA” and boasts that he has earned an A-plus rating from the organization every year he has served in elected office. The airline could not immediately be reached for comment on lawmakers’ removal of the tax exemption.
Delta at first resisted taking a stance, as companies with even the slightest affiliation to the NRA were called out and a list of companies that had cut ties with the NRA began circulating on Twitter. But Delta held out against the pressure for only a few hours.
The NRA has lashed out at companies that have dropped the discounts, saying they were participating in “a shameful display of political and civic cowardice.” But the group also downplayed the importance of the company’s actions, saying the “loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission.”
In the days since the showdown between Delta and Georgia Republicans began, top blue-state politicians have encouraged Delta to relocate its hub from Atlanta.
“@Delta, if Georgia politicians disagree with your stand against gun violence, we invite you to move your headquarters to New York,” said New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) in a tweet Tuesday.
But experts say it’s unlikely that Delta will respond to the invitations of Democratic state leaders by moving its hub. According to a Bloomberg article:
Delta virtually “owns” the world’s busiest airport. Sure, the city is technically the landlord, but nothing of much import happens at Hartsfield without Delta’s say-so. Part of this influence derives from location, seeing as it’s headquartered right next to the runways. Another source of power is the estimated $71 billion in annual economic impact that Georgia enjoys from Hartsfield, which claims to be the state’s largest employer. Moreover, less than two years ago, Delta signed a 20-year lease to stay in Atlanta, its home for the past 77 years.
Although Delta ended its alliance with the NRA, the company said its position on the gun-control debate remains neutral. “Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment,” the airline said in a statement Saturday.