Delta bailout stalling in House

By Justin Boron

The proposed state legislation, which would give Delta Air Lines a sizable tax exemption and throw into significant doubt Clayton County's financial future, has stalled in the House of Representatives, said a local legislator, who has been negotiating with the airline and other lawmakers to amend the bill.

With 14 business days left in the General Assembly, Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton said it wasn't likely to pass through the House and if it did, the bill's language would be amended to allow the county's current Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program to continue collecting tax from fuel sales until 2008 when it would come up for renewal.

The amendment would quell much of the concern about the county's ability to collect the projected $240 million in SPLOST funds, which were greatly hinged on the fuel tax.

The bill's introduction to the Legislature injected panic into county officials who estimated it could cost the county at least 8 percent of its annual revenue. They also said it could force salary reductions and possible layoffs of county government employees whose expense makes up 82 percent of the county's total budget.

Rep. Mark Burkhalter, who introduced the bill, could not be reached for comment.

John Kennedy, the spokesman for Delta, had said the company supported the bill but was looking for common ground with the county.

"As Clayton County's largest taxpayer, we continue to work closely with them to seek a mutually beneficial solution," he said.

Kennedy also said the county's estimate of the bill's economic impact was overstated.

Although the bill has hit a skid, Barnes said he felt betrayed by the company, which is a large source of employment for the county.

"I'm just really disappointed in Delta because I have stood up (at the state legislature) and defended them," he said.

As the bill raised questions about the reliability of the county's SPLOST, much of the community took the opportunity to ask the county commission about the six recreation centers promised in the program that have been placed behind several roadway enhancements in the project schedule.

At Tuesday's county commission meeting, Dexter Matthews, the president of the NAACP, demanded that the county commission set aside the $40 million that the centers would cost.

Commissioner Wole Ralph, who supported the group of community activists, said he didn't think the recreation center question would disappear if the bill would die.

He said the outcome of the recreation centers would determine whether citizens vote another SPLOST in 2008.