By Maria Saporta
Imagine if a Fortune 100 company were considering relocating its headquarters to metro Atlanta, and that company would employ 33,000 people in Georgia and generate $300 million a year in state and local taxes and fees.
Just imagine how our elected leaders and economic developers would drool and fall all over themselves offering incentives to offer that company.
Now consider this.
Delta Air Lines is a Fortune 100 company that is the top private employer in Georgia – providing jobs for 33,000 people statewide.
When it was coming out of bankruptcy in 2007, Delta had a choice – keep its headquarters in Atlanta or move to Minneapolis.
Richard Anderson, first a director and then CEO, and the board decided to keep the airline based in Atlanta.
Now I’m wondering if he’s second-guessing that decision.
No one company and no one executive was treated more disrespectfully during the 2015 legislative session than Delta and Anderson.
He had the audacity to speak his mind about what he thought was in the best interest of Georgia’s economic future.
As the 2014 chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Anderson felt obligated – as have our best business leaders have over the past many decades – to speak out for inclusion.
In the 1960s, Atlanta business leaders spoke out for tolerance and acceptance of racial integration.
And in today’s environment, Anderson urged the state to be welcoming to people from all over the world by having a less restrictive immigration policy and to steer away from social legislation – the religious freedom bill – that could be seen as discriminating against gays and lesbians.
Both those positions would make Georgia more economically competitive.
And as part of his swan song as Chamber chair, Anderson told state legislators they must be willing to raise taxes to meet the transportation infrastructure needs in the state.
(Guess what, that’s what they ended up doing – but never mind the facts).
So here is how one leading state legislator reacted to Anderson’s comments.
“Every time he opens his mouth, he makes my job easy,” State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican from Powder Springs, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ehrhart’s job? To go after Anderson and Delta to reinstate an aviation fuel tax that had been removed when the airline was coming out of bankruptcy.
“He’s a private citizen. He’s welcome to chime in on anything. [The religious liberty bills] didn’t drive me,” Ehrhart said. “But will I more than happily take advantage of those who are tired of him chiming in to pass a piece of legislation? Absolutely.”
Now two facts.
The estimated $20 million in new jet fuel taxes (Delta’s share likely would be about $16 million of that) that will be collected will NOT go towards solving our transportation problems. It is mandated by federal law that the revenue has to go to fund airports, which have their own ample revenue sources. In other words, the state won’t even benefit from its mean spiritedness.
Second fact. Since it emerged from bankruptcy in 2007, Delta has added 6,500 jobs in Georgia. How much in tax credits would Georgia pay a new company adding that many jobs? Think about the $23 million in incentives the state gave to Mercedes Benz USA for just 800 jobs.
In other words, reinstating the jet fuel tax wasn’t about the money.
It was about small-minded people wanting to teach a big-time CEO a lesson to keep his mouth shut about policies that actually are in the state’s best interests.
And we tout ourselves as being the No. 1 state for business in the country.
How can we really say that with a straight face when we treat our largest private employer this way?
What makes things worse was the absence of support from top state elected officials and business leaders – people who should have stood up for Delta and Richard Anderson.
The silence was deafening.
And that scares me, because I know it would not take much for Delta to move its core corporate headquarters to New York City – a city that would welcome its top executives with open arms and with an inclusive attitude towards business.
Fortunately, Delta is taking the high road – for now.
“We are proud of our seven decades as Georgia’s hometown airline and the historic partnership between Delta and the city of Atlanta,” said Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman. “We absolutely have no plans to relocate our headquarters.”
But people around town have told me that Delta’s executives are not happy, calling top leaders to voice their displeasure with the way the session transpired. Again, it’s not the money. It’s the vindictive and punitive way Delta was treated.
That’s no way to treat one of your treasured companies – much less your largest private employer – and much less the company which does more to make Georgia an economic development magnet than any other.
Here is what Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had to say in a brief interview a few days ago:
“I don’t think there is any more important corporate citizen than Richard Anderson and Delta, and what they do for the city and state.
I view this through the lens of what would we have done if there was a decision being made between Atlanta and Minneapolis. If we ever were in that conversation, that tax credit would be a fraction of the incentives we would offer to keep Delta’s headquarters here.
Richard Anderson made the decision to keep Delta as an Atlanta company, and that’s why I supported and support them receiving favorable tax treatment.
I think we all make a huge mistake if we don’t view this through the lens of competitiveness.
I do believe we have some repair work to do on that relationship.
I don’t think that story is over yet. We all need to stay at it.”
Why don’t we start with defeating Rep. Earl Ehrhart in the next election?