During this year’s Georgia General Assembly, state Sen. Burt Jones addressed a number of important issues, including looking into the possibility of the state taking over day-to-day operations of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — one of the busiest airports in the world.
Jones, R-Jackson, and state Rep. Rick Williams were guest speakers at last week’s Eggs & Issues breakfast held by the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce.
“An issue I’ve worked on that would really impact the entire state, and I think for the good of the state, was the Atlanta airport,” Jones said. “Sometimes you don’t know exactly when you take on an issue in the Georgia General Assembly how passionate you might become about an issue or sometimes the issue ends up taking over you as an individual or kinda consuming your time and efforts on a lot of things.”
Jones, R-Jackson, who along with Williams, make up the local delegation representing the residents of Milledgeville and Baldwin County in state government, has seen through the years what he described as a pattern of corruption related to the airport. He said a pattern of criminal indictments resulting in prison time that have taken place and, “really underhanded political mischiefs” that have gone on at the biggest economic engine for the state.
“I guess it was two years ago when we had the power outage — I don’t know if y’all remember that or not, but we had a power outage and in basically paralyzed the whole world of aviation agencies,” Jones said. “Literally, you had cancelations all over the world that took place because of was going on at Hartsfield. And for 18 hours, we never heard any details about what was going on at the airport.”
He said at the time, neither the public nor many officials were aware of whether a terrorist attack had taken place there or what — a fire, or perhaps a power outage.
“Nobody knew what was going on, and then finally after about 18 hours of everybody being in the complete dark about what was happening, our mayor at that time, which was Mayor (Kasim) Reed, came out and he blamed everybody from Georgia Power to the taxicab drivers.”
Jones said the former mayor of Atlanta did not take responsibility for what the lack of communication “and really offered no solutions or real good information."
“I felt like that was something that needed to be handled better and I felt like it needed to be investigated if we were doing the right thing by allowing basically one elected official in the state of Georgia to be the main voice or to oversee the airport there,” Jones explained.
Jones said he worked last summer to form a study committee.
The bipartisan committee consisted of eight republicans and five democrats.
The group’s mission was to look into the inner workings of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“It didn’t take long to see that there was a recent pattern that had been going on with payoffs, political gamesmanship, indictments, investigations and things of that nature,” said Jones, who served as chairman of the state study committee. “It had been going for 40 years. And you could go back to the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and see exactly what was going on. It all centered [on] — you had basically an enterprise that was run inside the city government (Atlanta City Council). It was controlled by one elected official, who just happened to be the mayor of Atlanta.”
Jones said the committee decided that they had uncovered enough reasons and justification to look at creating a state authority to oversee the day-to-day of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“Everybody was like if you do that how was that going to benefit other places around the state,” Jones said.
It would accomplish two things, Jones said.
“Number one, if there is one economic engine that you can point to that has helped drive businesses and traffic — everybody wants to talk about Atlanta and how it has grown — its population is exploding,” Jones said.
In 1970, the population of the city of Atlanta was 400,000, he said.
“Today, 2019, the city of Atlanta population is 480,000, so the boondoggle of growth hasn’t been in Atlanta; it’s been … metro-Atlanta, which is 6 million strong, now,” Jones said. “And if there was one entity that you could look at that has helped drive that growth of people and businesses, well, it’s Hartsfield Airport. It’s become the center point of our economic engine for the state of Georgia.”
Jones said Georgia is the only state with more than 11 million that only has one airport hub.
“An authority would do the necessary feasibility studies to look at creating a second hub and dispersing some of that business and people to other parts of the state,” Jones said. “I used the example that you don’t [want] a bunch of politicians determining where exactly a second hub would best be suited, but if you ask me … you want an authority made of business leaders from all over the state, much like your ports authority, much like your World Congress Center, what you would have is a group of business leaders that would verify a good spot.”
Jones maintains the best place in the state for a second airport hub is Macon-Bibb County.
“If you truly want to bridge the divide between rural and metro Atlanta, then you need to try to focus on an area that is central to the entire state,” Jones said.
The state senator said if nothing else, Macon-Bibb County could be a freight aviation hub since there already is rail in place as well as interstate access.
“You already have all of those things that feed into a facility that’s already there,” Jones said, adding that the economic impact for the entire region of the state would be huge. “We went down that road of weighing out all of the options with this legislation and it passed through the Senate, and again we had an overwhelming vote in the Senate to create this authority, then it got to the House and we had some changes that took place. You know those House members, they’re always a lot smarter than us senators. But they (made) some changes and wanted to change it to an oversight committee.”
Jones said he wasn’t fired up at all about the idea.
Already a federal investigation is underway by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the airport is currently being audited by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“I said that’s enough oversight right there that we don’t need a bunch of elected officials appointed to some oversight committee,” Jones said. “We go to enough lunches because that’s all it would end up being, a monthly lunch where we gather and talk about whatever.”
Jones said the Senate bill was included in the Delta Fuel Tax package.
“The Delta Fuel Tax exemption was going to eliminate sales tax on jet fuel,” Jones said. “The main focus was on Delta because they were going to get a $50 million annual savings. My argument to that was I wasn’t in favor of giving a fuel tax exemption on airlines and, in particular, Delta — a $3 billion company. And we’re wanting to just take $50 million out of [the] coffers and hand it over — just didn’t make much sense to me.”
Over 20 years, that figure comes down to $1 billion, he pointed out.
“Yeah, they are a good corporate partner and I love Delta and all that kind of stuff, but we’ve got a lot of good corporate partners in this state,” Jones said. “We’ve got Norfolk Southern and CSX and UPS.”
Jones said he was also against the idea because it would have eliminated the funding for all regional airports, too.
“They depend on those sale tax dollars to maintain their runways and to improve their facilities, so when you take that away, you eliminate funding for all those regional airports as well,” Jones said.
Going back to the idea of a state authority, Jones explained that they were at a stalemate in conference committee because essentially the Senate didn't agree with what the House wanted to do with the fuel tax and then the committee didn’t agree with where the House wanted to go with the idea of a state airport authority.
“What didn’t happen this year will carry over to next session,” Jones said. “We’re hopeful something can be worked out and a compromise can be made. I think us doing that would be a huge impact — number one, eliminate the political misgivings that have gone on for 40 years, — but also something that would benefit the entire state and how we can not only expand our aviation needs but also look at how we can bridge a gap that continues to grow between our metro and rural areas as well.”