By BEN NADLER and R.J. RICO, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — Republicans in the Georgia legislature took a step Wednesday toward fulfilling the GOP lieutenant governor’s vow to punish Delta Air Lines for severing business ties with the National Rifle Association. But a Democratic rival warned the political threat could be illegal.
The Republican-dominated Senate Rules Committee cast a non-unanimous voice vote Wednesday to strip a sales tax exemption on jet fuel from a larger tax bill, which now goes to the full Senate. Atlanta-based Delta stood to save tens of millions of dollars annually as the biggest beneficiary of the fuel tax break.
The move came two days after Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle threatened to kill the tax break for Delta. Cagle and other GOP candidates to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal next year have been united this week in attacking Delta ever since it announced it was ending the travel discount program it had offered to NRA members.
The airline’s recent decision to cut ties with the NRA following a deadly school shooting in Florida had prompted Cagle to tweet Monday that he would “kill” a proposed tax exemption benefiting Delta unless the airline reverses its stance. Georgia officials have been working behind the scenes ever since to try to reach a resolution between Republican lawmakers, Delta and the NRA.
Cagle took to the Fox News Channel on Wednesday morning to defend his position, arguing that Delta had taken “punitive” action against defenders of the Second Amendment and was unfairly targeting “law-abiding gun owners.”
“We should never be forced to choose between our values and growing our economy. We stand for both!” the gubernatorial candidate tweeted shortly after his “Fox & Friends” appearance.
But a Democratic candidate for the governor’s office believes Cagle has gone too far.
In a Wednesday letter, Stacey Evans urged Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, to investigate whether Cagle’s recent tweet broke bribery, extortion and ethics laws.
Cagle stands to benefit economically from the threat as a member of the NRA, Evans said. She also said Cagle’s campaign for governor could also benefit.
“Cagle threatened to use his elected office to impose retribution against Delta … unless Delta conformed to his personal ideology,” she wrote.
Cagle’s spokesman declined comment. The Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although Cagle’s threat to kill the tax cut may win fans among GOP voters, it could also backfire when it comes to recruiting business — most notably Georgia’s status as a finalist for Amazon’s planned second U.S. headquarters, said William Hatcher, an Augusta University professor who studies economic development.
Delta employs 33,000 workers statewide in Georgia, and its busy Atlanta hub has made Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport the busiest in the world.
Airlines would have owed the state an estimated $38 million less annually under the proposal removed from the tax-cut package by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday. Prior to the NRA controversy, the bill had easily passed the House last week with the jet fuel exemption included. If the amended measure passes the Senate, the jet fuel proposal could still be added back if the bill is sent to a conference committee.
Democrats, who control roughly one-third of the votes in both the Georgia House and Senate, have said that picking a fight with the airline is directly at odds with the state’s “business-friendly” policies that legislators so regularly tout.
“We’ve worked too hard to make this a place where businesses can come and thrive for us to be so reckless in terms of the language that has been used on social media,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat. “If we lose corporations and jobs because of political pandering, that’s problematic.”
Deal, who is serving his last year in office, has not commented publicly on the issue since Cagle’s tweet. In the past, the governor has opposed social conservatives in his own party on issues the governor feared might tarnish Georgia’s business-friendly reputation.
More than a dozen companies, including Metlife, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Best Western, Wyndham and United Airlines have ended NRA partnerships since the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Police say the suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
A message posted to the NRA’s official Twitter account Tuesday said: “Having those on the left pushing for a boycott to pressure companies to drop discounts just shows how out of touch some are.”
Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined comment Tuesday.
Following Cagle’s tweet, Democratic officials in other states have made overtures to Delta.
“@Delta, if Georgia politicians disagree with your stand against gun violence, we invite you to move your headquarters to New York,” Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo tweeted Tuesday.
On “Fox & Friends” Wednesday, Cagle scoffed at the notion that Delta, which recently signed a 20-year lease extension with Atlanta’s airport, would move to New York.
“When you look at our tax rate, our cost of living along with our tort system, our regulatory environment and our workforce, we’re second to none,” Cagle said. “I don’t think New York has anything to offer Delta that we do not already offer.”
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.