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Editorial: Delta tax snub is about chasing votes, not jobs
Cagle, GOP playing politics that could hurt state’s business-friendly image
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, left, and Gov. Nathan Deal’s chief of staff Chris Riley confer in the state Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, before the Rules Committee stripped a jet fuel sales tax cut from legislation. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

America’s march toward splitting into armed — and unarmed — camps has crested yet another hill. This growing divide puts Georgia leaders in a tight spot as various efforts in the General Assembly widen the rift between the state’s social conservatives and its growing business interests.

Reaction to the Feb. 14 deadly school shooting in Florida led some companies to limit weapons sales and others to cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Among those was Atlanta’s Delta Air Lines ending its limited and seldom-used ticket discounts for NRA members.

That move sparked some gun rights advocates to call for boycotts. It paints a picture a future in which every shop, restaurant or business will feature a Democratic donkey or Republican elephant on its front window.

But what started as a free market dispute now has government involved. Georgia Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. and gubernatorial candidate Casey Cagle, killed a $50 million sales tax break on jet fuel Delta was seeking in a tax cut bill.

We’re not sure why Delta needed this corporate welfare giveaway by government meddling in the free market. Delta contributes $4.35 billion and 33,000 jobs to the state economy, but the odds it would move its headquarters over such as decision are slim. The greater damage is to the image of a state that has labored to make itself attractive to business.

In announcing his plan to kill the tax break, Cagle said he was tired of conservatives being mistreated, seemingly equating NRA membership with all conservative policies. While many likely cheered, his actions were inappropriate and ill-conceived, the kind of political muscle more often seen flexed in Georgia’s past.

Gov. Nathan Deal, term-limited in his final year and in no mood for political games, wasn’t pleased with the loss of a tax break he favored, nor the staining of Georgia’s business-friendly portrait he has crafted to attract the Hollywood film industry and home-hunting Amazon. Having its political posturing featured on the front page of Wednesday’s New York Times and in a sarcastic skit on Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show Tuesday isn’t the kind of exposure he prefers.

“Ours is a welcoming state, the epitome of Southern hospitality,” Deal said Wednesday. “We were not elected to give the late-night talk show hosts further fodder for their monologues, or to act with the type of immaturity that has caused so many in our society to be skeptical about politics.”

He called the tax cut move “antics that tend to plague election years,” a not-too-subtle slap at his No. 2 official, potential successor and fellow Hall Countian.

But politically, Delta, Colbert and Deal may have given Cagle a huge gift going into the May primary. As the best-funded and best-known Republican in the race, he has been target of attacks from the right by foes painting him as a mushy moderate insider. Getting slammed by a liberal talk show host could solidify his bona fides with social conservatives.

There have been other legislative moves over religious liberty and English-language mandates that make Georgia appear to be intolerant to same-sex couples and Latinos. Such an appearance could drive away Amazon and other corporations on the move, and repel conventions and sporting events, such as next year’s Super Bowl and the 2020 NCAA Final Four. One slip, as North Carolina discovered with its ill-fated transgender bathroom law, can cost a state dearly for years.

On one hand, Cagle and company feel it’s government’s role to tell private businesses how to operate, yet on the other want government to refrain from doing just that, a bit of political inconsistency impossible to ignore. Perhaps this would have passed muster with the lieutenant governor if Delta had tied its discounts to a religious philosophy rather than trying to make a point about school safety.

State leaders are at a crossroads: Do they want Georgia to keep lit the “Open for Business” sign and make every effort to welcome potential corporate suitors? Or will they maintain rigid positions on hot-button issues they feel reflect the ardor of certain voters, even if it costs the state millions in economic benefits and thousands of jobs?

Many conservatives balk at compromising principles to court businesses, believing no economic gain justifies giving up closely held values. Some could end up doing so from unemployment lines.

“We should never be forced to choose between our values and growing our economy. We stand for both!” Cagle tweeted last week. 

But is that realistic knowing how choosing sides over divisive issues can turn many away? And is one of his “values” a belief government should dictate how private businesses should operate?

These issues will continue to bubble up in a culture so ruptured by politics it influences how business is conducted and who shops where. In particular, debates over immigration, guns, religion, abortion and LGBT rights raise blood pressure and decibels, and leave little wiggle room for compromise. That leaves us to ask: Is winning an election primary worth the cost of alienating those who want to do business here, especially if the winner must spend the next four years repairing the damage?

The stakes are high. Georgia has successfully made itself an ideal destination for major corporations and industries, but that progress could be undone quickly by political stubbornness, or worse yet political opportunism, and send those jobs to other Sun Belt locales eager to welcome them. 

The last thing the state needs is leaders driven by personal ambitions to take us backward instead of ahead into a prosperous future. Last week’s move was a step back, not forward.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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