Last summer, Delta Air Lines decided to do more for Georgia's legislators than just give them campaign contributions or have lobbyists buy them meals and drinks during the General Assembly session.
The airline giant also gave several lawmakers Gold Medallion and Platinum Medallion upgrades in their frequent flyer status, entitling them to additional perks and benefits when they fly on Delta.
Delta's campaign disclosure records show that the airline upgraded Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams to Platinum status on July 30, along with a Gold Medallion upgrade for House Majority Leader Larry O'Neal on that same date.
A few weeks later, Delta gave a Gold Medallion upgrade to Sen. Ronnie Chance, R-Tyrone, along with one for Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Sky Club status with an upgrade to House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones.
Delta assigned a value of $1,588 to the Gold Medallion upgrades and $2,381 to the Platinum upgrades. The Sky Club status and upgrade given to Jones, according to Delta's estimate, were worth $2,831.
Those who know the travel industry contend that the upgrades were more valuable than that. Consumer advisor Clark Howard has placed the true value of a Platinum upgrade in the range of $10,000 to $15,000.
Those frequent flyer upgrades came on top of campaign contributions from Delta to legislative leaders and Gov. Nathan Deal during the most recent election cycle. The largest Delta contributions went to Deal ($3,000), Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle ($1,000) and House Speaker David Ralston ($1,000).
Delta ended up getting a good financial return on those campaign contributions and frequent flyer upgrades. During this year's legislative session, the House and Senate passed a bill extending for another two years a sales tax exemption on the purchase of jet fuel by Delta.
Deal signed that exemption into law, and it will be worth $20 million to Delta in fiscal year 2012 and $10 million in the following fiscal year.
The interesting thing about all of these contributions and paybacks is not that they are illegal - they aren't. Georgia law does put some limits on how much you can contribute to a political campaign, but there are no limits on what lobbyists can spend to influence the passage of legislation. A good example here would be the lobbyist who spent $17,000 to send Ralston and his family on a European junket last November.
Delta and its lobbyists haven't worked the system any differently than other lobbyists who spend thousands of dollars in their attempts to secure passage of legislation that will bring their clients millions of dollars in tax breaks and exemptions. This is how the system works under the Golden Dome.
Lawmakers this year passed another bill that will extend for two years a tax exemption worth an estimated $7 million to $8 million annually for Gulfstream Aerospace of Savannah.
In the election cycle prior to this year's legislative session, Gulfstream disclosed making about $24,000 in campaign contributions to influential lawmakers.
These contributions went to such legislators as Rep. Ron Stephens ($2,000), Sen. Jack Hill ($2,000), Sen. Don Balfour ($2,000), Williams ($2,000), Sen. Buddy Carter ($2,000), Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers ($1,000), Ralston ($1,000), Jones ($1,000), and Rep. Earl Ehrhart ($1,000), among others.
Stephens sponsored the bill that extended the sales tax exemption for Gulfstream and the legislation was signed into law by Deal.
These contributions and gifts, and the votes subsequently made by legislators, could leave the average Georgian with the distinct impression that everything at the Capitol is for sale. It's easy to see why they might think that.
The people we elect to the General Assembly should be asking themselves two basic questions when they make public policy decisions in our name:
What is the level of service that state government should provide to its residents?
What is the most efficient and fairest way to tax businesses and individuals to raise the revenues to pay for this level of service?
The taxing and spending policies developed by our legislators should be based on the best answers to those questions. They should not be determined by how much money and how many favors a particular corporation or interest group might have given them.
That is an unhealthy and ultimately a corrupting way to govern.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.