State Airport Takeover: How We Got Here And What Happens Next

Mar 20, 2019

As Atlanta city officials wait to see if control of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is given to the state, the senator who introduced the legislation defended doing so.

Republican Sen. Burt Jones is the sponsor of Senate Bill 131. It would create the Georgia Major Airport Authority. That group, would take over control of any airport that “conducts more than 400,000 takeoffs and landing in any calendar year.”

That means Hartsfield. But Jones said there’s really one reason why he introduced the measure.

“If all the indictments, investigations, people going to prison wasn’t going on, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Jones said on the timing of the bill.

A federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta’s City Hall under former Mayor Kasim Reed is still ongoing. A key part of the investigation unveiled construction and vendor contracts were given to people with close political ties to Reed.

After Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took office, she vowed to be more transparent and clean up the act around City Hall. But a recent look by the AJC found her former Chief of Staff, Marva Lewis, was named Hartsfield’s deputy general manager and paid using funds from the airport, which is under investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Despite the problems at city hall, Bottoms has strongly condemned the move by state legislators to take over control of the airport.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Bottoms said during a GPB Lawmakers interview. “I think its’s what I call an act of war. We’ve had a phenomenal relationship with the state over the past nine years at least. And it’s unnecessary to disrupt this relationship that’s been productive.”

The mayor has also likened the move to a “theft from the people of Atlanta.” At her 2019 State of the City address, she also warned state lawmakers “you can’t best the best” when it comes to how efficient the airport has operated over the past few years.

Sen. Jones said he’s attempted to reach out to the Bottoms in the process but to no avail.

“The next step was to say where going to push forward legislation based on their findings from the study committee,” Jones said. “The unanimous vote that we received from that committee was wanting to move forward and we’ve just pretty much been stonewalled at city hall.”

Jones said he originally pitched the idea of doing a city-state joint operation, which he says Bottoms rejected.

But Jones’ bill ran into another stonewall, in the form of Speaker David Ralston. Speaking at a local event, Ralston didn’t lend the idea his support.

According to the AJC he said:

“I don’t know that he looked to see what the liabilities by the airport are before he’s done that. I haven’t heard the case for it yet. I will hear out the case. But I don’t think that it makes the case for economic development we want.”

And even though the bill cleared the Senate, it has yet to make it out of committee and to the floor of the House with just nine days left in the legislative session.

But that doesn’t mean it’s dead. At a Senate finance committee meeting, the Georgia Major Airport Authority Act was attached to another bill, House Bill 447, which is a jet fuel tax break for major airlines, like Delta.

During the committee meeting, Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R- Douglas, who sponsors HB 447 said he was concerned the two bills weren’t germane. But debate on the airport issue wasn’t taken.

The Senate committee, however, approved the bill and once the Senate votes on it, it goes back to the House.

As far as the relationship between Atlanta and the state, Jones said his message to Bottoms is the door is open if she wants to discuss the legislation.

“I have enjoyed the dialogue she and I have had in the past and there was no raising of voices or anything like that but at the end of the day we just had a different opinion.”