By Ben Nadler and R.J. Rico | Associated Press
ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers’ decision to punish Delta Air Lines for publicly distancing itself from the National Rifle Association was an extraordinary act of political revenge.
By killing a proposed tax break on jet fuel, pro-gun Republicans won a political victory that could pay off in the short term, but other companies won’t soon forget that Georgia allied itself with the NRA over one of its largest private employers, with 33,000 workers statewide.
“When you inject naked politics — and that’s what this is — into the economic equation, I think that it does have the chance of spooking the business community,” said Tom Stringer, a New York-based consultant for the business-advisory firm BDO. “One thing about the business community is that it has a very long memory.”
The uproar began last Saturday when Delta stopped offering fare discounts to NRA members in the wake of the school massacre in Florida. On Friday, Delta CEO Ed Bastian insisted in a memo to employees that the company was “not taking sides” on gun control and made the decision in hopes of removing itself from the gun debate. He said the company’s “values are not for sale” and “we are proud and honored to locate our headquarters here.”
Delta recently signed a 20-year lease to keep its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, and business consultants said other Atlanta-based firms, such as Coca-Cola and UPS, will likely stay put too. But GOP lawmakers’ willingness to use public money to try to intimidate corporations could damage Georgia’s ability to attract new industry — including Amazon, which recently named metro Atlanta a finalist for its coveted second headquarters.
“I think it’s fair to say that this situation would not be helpful to the state of Georgia in potentially securing the Amazon site,” said Jerry Funaro, Chicago-based vice president for global marketing at TRC Global Mobility, a relocation management company. “They could certainly say that this would be a reason to look elsewhere.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is running in a crowded primary for governor in April, set the stage for the fight with a tweet Monday saying conservatives would fight back. He defended the move Friday.
“We cannot continue to allow large companies to treat conservatives differently than other customers, employees and partners,” Cagle wrote in an opinion piece published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The voters who elected us and believe strongly in our rights and liberties expect and deserve no less.”
Another GOP candidate for governor, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, even suggested using the estimated $38 million the state would save by killing jet fuel tax break to pay for a tax-free “holiday” on purchases of guns and ammunition.
Other GOP leaders openly cringed at the combative tone Cagle and others took.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who is term-limited and serving his final year, bemoaned the controversy as an “unbecoming squabble” fueled by election-year posturing. GOP House Speaker David Ralston called it “not one of our finer days” when the firestorm erupted Monday.
Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion in Georgia since 2003, a deep red streak that makes this year’s GOP gubernatorial nominee a likely favorite in November.
Deal and other governors for decades have made it a priority to ensure Georgia was an attractive location for prospective employers, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. Before the NRA controversy, he said, many GOP lawmakers defended the jet fuel tax break as necessary to protect jobs.
“What this really does is it says, in terms of setting priorities, that taking a stand on the NRA is more significant,” Bullock said. “The jobs thing now is pushed to the back.”
After Delta announced it was cutting ties with the NRA, it took pro-gun Republicans just five days to make good on their threats by stripping the proposed jet fuel tax break from a sweeping tax bill that passed both the House and Senate on Thursday.
Deal, who said an estimated $5.2 billion in overall tax savings was too important to sacrifice, swiftly signed the measure into law Friday. He vowed to keep pursuing the jet fuel exemption as a separate issue.
Delta revealed Friday that the NRA discount that triggered the showdown had barely been used. Offered recently for NRA members flying to the group’s 2018 convention in Dallas, only 13 discounted tickets had been sold, Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said.
Delta isn’t the only company to take action since the Feb. 14 slayings of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Florida, by a gunman armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle. Walmart, Kroger and Dick’s Sporting Goods have tightened their gun sales policies. Meanwhile, MetLife, Hertz and others have joined Delta in ending business ties with the NRA.
The extent of the backlash Georgia might face from businesses is unclear. But firms from outside the South may think twice about Georgia if they see a clash of corporate values on guns and other social issues, said Jon Gabrielsen, a business-strategy consultant who worked 17 years in Georgia before moving recently to Mexico.
“If you’re not there yet, why would you want to subject yourself to that potential grief with what the legislature just pulled?” Gabrielsen said.
AP reporter Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, and Airlines Writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this story.