Last weekend, Delta Airlines exercised its constitutional right to speak freely on political issues and to choose with whom it associates by announcing that it would no longer offer a special discount to members of the National Rifle Association.
Soon after, Republicans in Georgia, where the Atlanta-based airline is headquartered, threatened to retaliate against the company unless it reversed its stance.
The threat itself was an abuse of power. State officials should never threaten any Americans for their political viewpoints or attempt to coerce them into associating with a specific lobbying group.
And Thursday, the Georgia GOP compounded its transgression: It moved to carry out its threat, tweaking a tax-cut bill that a majority of its members had supported by stripping out a provision that exempted jet fuel from the state sales tax.“The bill granting the tax exemption on jet fuel was easily approved in the House last week, and appeared to have wide support,” The Washington Post reported. “Advocates said it would attract flights to Atlanta as opposed to other major airports.” Yet the Republican-controlled state Senate passed the altered version. And that new version was tens of millions of dollars worse for Delta.
Was the original bill better on substance? Perhaps it was sound policy that deserved to pass, or perhaps Republicans were mistaken in their initial support. Had they reversed course because they decided that it was corporate welfare, or that it was unlikely to increase the competitiveness of the Atlanta airport, as they first believed, or that the state needed revenue, there would be no problem.
But instead, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle explicitly announced his motives earlier in the week: “I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA,” he tweeted. “Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.” (Notice how he defines an attack: no longer offering a special discount.)
As Charles Cooke of National Review wrote, “This is a bad idea. Delta and the NRA are both private organizations; the state should not be taking sides on the basis of elected officials’ opinions about their private arrangements. This is viewpoint discrimination.”
The Georgia GOP is likely to get away with its abuse of power because of the method that it used to punish Delta: It changed a provision in a bill that had not yet been voted into law, rendering a judicial remedy unwieldy if not impossible, especially because a minority of Republicans did oppose it on substance.
Who can prove why every last vote changed?
But Cagle, who is running for governor, has proved himself willing to abuse his power for political allies.
Imagine that the political actors were reversed, that an airline based in California came under pressure from pro-life activists for offering a discount to NARAL Pro-Choice America—and say that, after considering the matter, it withdrew the discount, declaring that it had customers and employees with diverse views and wanted to stay neutral on abortion.
If California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom then declared, “Corporations cannot attack progressives and expect us not to fight back,” and subsequently tweaked a tax bill Democrats previously supported in a manner that cost the airline tens of millions of dollars, making good on a specific threat to do so unless the airline continued to associate with NARAL, I suspect conservatives would object—and they’d be right to do so.
Cagle is guilty of equivalent transgressions. By his own admission, he sought to punish a business for declining to associate with a political organization, and he did so by changing his position on a tax bill. He abused his power and decided policy based on factors other than the public interest, in order to help the NRA. It’s a disturbing precedent—and if he’s rewarded for it politically, others may follow his lead.