Delta tax break facing ‘tough climb’ with Georgia lawmakers

ATLANTA (AP) — The Georgia House speaker questioned the need for renewing a $38 million tax break for Delta Air Lines and other carriers as state lawmakers reconvened Tuesday for a special legislative session called by the governor.

Gov. Nathan Deal ordered legislators back to the Capitol primarily to approve $270 million in funding for cleanup and recovery efforts associated with Hurricane Michael’s devastating march across southwest Georgia last month.

But the House and Senate must also revisit lifting the state sales tax on jet fuel.

Controversy erupted over the perk earlier this year when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Senate Republicans declared they were killing the tax break to punish Delta, one of Georgia’s largest private employers. Lawmakers were outraged when Delta ended fare discounts for National Rifle Association members after the deadly school shootings in Parkland, Florida.

Deal ended up salvaging the tax exemption with an executive order. But state law requires the legislature to ratify that order. If lawmakers approve, the break stays in effect until the fiscal year ends June 30. If the proposal fails, airlines would owe retroactive sales taxes dating to Aug. 1.

“I said last week I thought it was going to have a tough climb,” House Speaker David Ralston told reporters as the session opened Tuesday. “I still think that.”

Ralston said he doesn’t know whether the measure would pass the House or not. But he said it’s up to Delta and other airlines to prove not only that they need the tax relief, but that granting it would benefit Georgia’s economy.

“I have serious concerns and questions in my own mind that they haven’t done that,” Ralston said.

Whatever happens, lawmakers are expected to work quickly. Ralston and Cagle, who presides over the Senate, predicted Tuesday the session will last just five days.

The House Appropriations Committee planned to take up amending the state budget to include money for hurricane recovery Wednesday. Deal, who leaves office in January, was scheduled to make his case to the committee.

Michael charged into rural southwest Georgia as a powerful Category 3 hurricane in October. Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens’ office says residents filed 68,000 claims worth $700 million in damage and losses to homes, businesses and vehicles. That’s $60 million more than Georgia’s combined insured losses from Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, which struck in 2016 and 2017.

“We’re going to be very aggressive and do everything we possibly can to help the farming communities in that part of the state,” Ralston said.

The session opened on a somber note Tuesday as lawmakers learned Rep. John Meadows, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, had died earlier that morning. Brian Kemp, the GOP candidate for governor, tweeted Tuesday that Meadows died from cancer.

The 74-year-old Republican served 14 years in the House, representing northern Georgia’s 5th District. He was a former U.S. Marine who had previously served as mayor of Calhoun.

“It’s often stated you make your living by what you get, and you make your life by what you give,” said Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat and former Rules chairman. “John Meadows loved this House and he gave all, and all, and all to make it a better place to serve.”