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Delta CEO insists ‘we are not taking sides’ in U.S. gun debate

UPDATED: Fri., March 2, 2018

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, with his floor leaders to his side, holds a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Atlanta to address the jet fuel tax cut issue after the Senate Rules Committee stripped the Delta tax cut from legislation. (Bob Andres / Associated Press)
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, with his floor leaders to his side, holds a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Atlanta to address the jet fuel tax cut issue after the Senate Rules Committee stripped the Delta tax cut from legislation. (Bob Andres / Associated Press)
By Ben Nadler and R.J. Rico Associated Press

ATLANTA – After Delta Air Lines withstood swift political retribution in its home state of Georgia for cutting ties with the National Rifle Association, the airline’s chief executive insisted Friday “we are not taking sides” in the national debate over guns.

Atlanta-based Delta released an internal memo CEO Ed Bastian sent to employees as GOP Gov. Nathan Deal swiftly signed into law a broad tax bill Republican lawmakers amended to kill a proposed tax break on jet fuel that would have saved Delta millions of dollars.

Republican leaders running to succeed Deal as governor vowed to punish Delta after it stopped offering fare discounts to NRA members. Deal bemoaned the “unbecoming squabble,” but signed the altered tax bill anyway.

“Our people and our customers have a wide range of views on how to increase safety in our schools and public places, and we are not taking sides,” Bastian’s memo said. “Our objective in removing any implied affiliation with the NRA was to remove Delta from this debate.”

The move backfired. Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is running for governor, tweeted that conservatives would “fight back” against a perceived corporate attack on their pro-gun values. The state House and Senate voted Thursday to pass a broad tax bill after GOP lawmakers eliminated language that would have exempted jet fuel from sales taxes.

Deal, a term-limited Republican serving his final year, swiftly and quietly signed the tax bill, tweeting that he immediately wanted Georgia taxpayers to reap savings on their 2017 income tax returns. He made no mention of the Delta controversy.

Other Republicans weren’t so quiet.

“We had to send a message,” state Sen. Michael Williams, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, told “Fox & Friends” on Friday. He said Delta had “tried to interfere in the legislative process.”

Delta isn’t the only company to take action since the Feb. 14 slayings of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Florida, by a gunman armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle. Walmart, Kroger and Dick’s Sporting Goods have tightened their gun sales policies. Meanwhile, MetLife, Hertz and others have joined Delta in ending business ties with the NRA.

Pro-gun lawmakers may have won a legislative victory in Georgia, where Delta is one of the largest employers with 33,000 employees statewide. But the threat of losing a hefty tax break failed to budge Delta from its decision to distance itself from the NRA.

“Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale,” Bastian said in his memo to employees.

The fuel-tax exemption was worth at least an estimated $38 million to Delta and other airlines. It hadn’t been controversial until Delta crossed the NRA last weekend.

“I hope they are better at flying airplanes than timing P.R. announcements,” said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican.

The Senate passed the broader tax measure 44-10 Thursday after it was stripped of the fuel tax exemption, with Democrats accounting for all of the no votes. The House – which had passed an earlier version with the jet fuel exemption before the Delta controversy erupted – followed with a 135-24 vote.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal criticized the Delta controversy as an “unbecoming squabble” but said he would sign the broader tax measure in whatever form it passed.

The Delta provision barely came up Thursday in either legislative chamber during debate on the underlying tax bill, designed in part to give back to Georgia taxpayers $5.2 billion in extra state revenue expected over the next five years because of the recent federal tax overhaul.

Cagle took a softer tone in celebrating the victory Thursday.

“Obviously the political environment does sometimes get a little testy, but in the end, it’s all about the product,” said Cagle, who is running this year to succeed the term-limited governor. “And the product we have today is something that all of us can be very proud of.”

Among Democrats voting against the tax bill was Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, who applauded companies that have taken swift action on guns after the Florida tragedy. She said Delta’s decision to end its NRA discounts led her to support the jet fuel tax break.

“The small steps that Delta and Dick’s Sporting Goods are taking, to take a stand and say enough is enough, is what we all need to be doing as adults,” Williams said. “We’re the leaders of this state and we need to be coming together for solutions, not bullying corporations who are trying to do the right thing.”

Critics of the GOP effort to retaliate against Delta have warned it could backfire by harming Georgia’s ability to lure businesses – including Amazon, which recently named Atlanta a finalist in its search for a second headquarters.

“It definitely could have an effect when an outside company looks at something that happens this quickly around election time to one of the largest employers in the state,” said William Hatcher, a professor at Augusta University who studies economic development. “But will it be the dominant factor? I don’t think so.”

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