Georgia benefits from the presence of enlightened Atlanta-based companiesGov. Nathan Deal at the 2018 announcement that for the sixth consecutive year, Georgia is the best state to do business. Economic Development Commissioner Pat Wilson and Site Selection editor Mark Arend listen to the governor. (Photo by Maria Saporta)
By Maria Saporta
It just doesn’t jive.
Last fall, Gov. Brian Kemp boasted about Georgia’s consecutive No. 1 rankings as the top state for business.
And yet in the past couple of weeks, that same governor is lambasting two of Georgia’s highest profile companies – Delta Air Lines and the Coca-Cola Co. – for openly criticizing the state’s new voting legislation.
At the same time, some left-leaning organizations are calling for a boycott of Delta and Coca-Cola for not speaking out earlier against the voting bill that they say will significantly restrict voters’ ability to cast their ballots.
In short, two of Georgia’s most important corporate citizens are being attacked – unfairly – from both ends of the political spectrum.
The end result is that this skirmish is hurting Georgia’s image as a business-friendly state.
According to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, more than 100 corporate executives “gathered online Saturday to discuss taking new action to combat the controversial state voting bills being considered across the country, including the one recently signed into law in Georgia.”
The executives discussed halting donations to politicians who support more restrictive voting bills and delaying economic investments in states that have passed such legislation.
It all feels so counterproductive to Georgia’s long-term interests of being an economically competitive state that is attractive to new corporate investment.
But it also is indicative of the messy political climate around us.
Let’s not forget that in Georgia, the legislation was passed to appease former President Donald Trump, who claimed his loss in Georgia was due to a fraudulent election – even though he was unable to provide evidence of election fraud. That did not stop him from going after Gov. Kemp and Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger for not finding the votes to give Trump a Georgia victory.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why Gov. Kemp would still be trying to please Trump after the former president threw him under the bus repeatedly during the past year – and as recently as Saturday night at a gathering of Republican leaders in Mar-a-Lago, Florida. But that’s politics for you.
It makes even less sense for Kemp and state legislators to go after Delta and Coca-Cola, two companies that contribute millions of dollars to the state’s coffers. Some have questioned whether the current anti-business stance at the legislature is emanating from a fear these companies are contributing to Georgia’s shift from a red state to a blue state.
But back to the business rankings.
The publication – Area Development – announced in September that Georgia was named the top state for business – for the seventh year in a row.
At the time, Kemp said the announcement was “a powerful testament to the fundamental strength of Georgia’s economy, even in these challenging times.”
Kemp went on to say: “After all of these years, it’s abundantly clear that Georgia remains the epicenter for job growth, economic development, and investment because of strong, conservative leadership. But make no mistake about it, this ranking is because of the hardworking Georgians who work tirelessly to create opportunities and build success in their communities.”
And the governor ended by saying: “Moving forward, we will work around the clock to keep our state government streamlined, responsive, and business-friendly, and there is no doubt this ranking will help to strengthen our economic recovery as we protect the lives and livelihoods of all Georgians,”
A month later, Atlanta-based Site Selection Magazine came out with its rankings. Georgia ranked No. 1 for the eighth year in a row – although it shared that No. 1 spot with North Carolina (that’s the first time there had been a tie for the top spot).
When asked if the latest back-and-forth between the governor and two of Georgia’s largest companies over the voting bill would impact the ranking, Site Selection’s editor-in-chief – Mark Arend – said: “It’s too soon to tell. The law was just passed.”
But after 24 years with the magazine, Arend said he has come to appreciate that companies are looking for the right labor market, a good infrastructure, attractive incentives as well as a location’s quality of life when they decide where to locate their facilities.
“North Carolina took a pretty bad public relations hit five years ago, and they were tied for first this year,” Arend said about North Carolina’s passage of the controversial “bathroom bill,” which was overturned in 2019.
Of course, this is not the first time Delta or Coca-Cola have found themselves at odds with state legislators.
Back in the 1960s, Coca-Cola supported integration and the civil rights movement – a position that was out-of-step with Dixie-crats in the day. But Coca-Cola always had the support of the top elected officials in the City of Atlanta.
Because Atlanta had an enlightened business community in the 1960s, Atlanta emerged as the undisputed capital of commerce in the Southeast. The executives likely took progressive positions because they understood it would be good for business for Atlanta to be seen as a place where the races could get along. Atlanta also was fortunate to be a center for Black colleges and universities that graduated leaders who astutely knew how to push for change without violence.
Most Georgia governors recognized that taking a moderate stance on social issues would make the state an attractive place for investment – Gov. Carl Sanders, Gov. Jimmy Carter, Gov. George Busbee, Gov. Joe Frank Harris, Gov. Zell Miller, Gov. Roy Barnes and Gov. Nathan Deal were all practical politicians who made sure Georgia was business-friendly. (You can figure out the governors who I didn’t list).
More recently, Delta has emerged as the voice of smart business – whether it’s been religious freedom legislation, immigration, removal of discounted tickets for members of the National Rifle Association, infrastructure investments or voting rights. The state legislature has tried to “punish” Delta several times by removing tax breaks for airline fuel, and it tried to do so at the end of this legislative session, but it ran out of time to do so.
Once again, Georgia is lucky Delta is based in Atlanta and that Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is its main operating hub. When Delta signed a 20-year lease agreement with the City of Atlanta in 2016, one of the conditions was that the airline would keep its headquarters in Georgia for the length of the lease.
Deisha Barnett, chief brand and communications officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the assets that have made Atlanta attractive to business remain.
“At the end of the day, Atlanta never stops buzzing,” Barnett said. “Atlanta is a place that pushes through. Over 161 years, we have celebrated in times of great momentum and have pushed through challenges. We are not perfect, but we are committed to holding up and preserving Atlanta’s legacy – especially now.”