Georgia's state takeover bid for Atlanta’s airport dies, for now
Atlanta's airport may have dodged a rating downgrade after the Georgia Legislature failing to find common ground on the state’s bid to take control of city-owned Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Lawmakers ended their annual session Tuesday without coming to agreement on a plan to force the state government into a bigger role at the airport. The issue remains alive because Senate Bill 131 can be considered again in 2020, the second year of the legislature's biennial session.
The takeover measure passed the Senate by a vote of 34-22 on March 7. The House passed the bill by a vote of 104 to 70 on March 28, but only after it was amended to create a state oversight panel, rather than having the state take ownership of the airport.
“We live to fight another day,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia A. Moore. “The Georgia state Legislature’s decision to forego the creation of a state airport oversight committee or authority is a welcome turn of events.”
Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, said he sponsored the bill because of procurement investigations in past years that have led to arrests and the fact that the airport is largely controlled by the mayor’s office.
Moore said that the city council will continue to address procurement and city oversight issues in an effort to restore public confidence in local government.
Harsfield-Jackson is an economic powerhouse, named the world’s busiest airport by the Airports Council International for 21 years running, credited by ACI with handling more than 107 million passengers in 2018.
Atlanta is the headquarters and largest hub of Delta Air Lines, which opposed the state takeover, as did the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, NAACP Atlanta chapter, and Urban League of Greater Atlanta.
The potential state takeover had raised concerns about the possibility that the airport’s bonds, which are issued by the city, could be downgraded.
A council resolution objecting to SB 131 sent to Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers cited a January 24, 2018 memo from the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission that said “adding a layer of state oversight or changing ownership of the airport will cause a negative perception that could negatively impact credit ratings because of the potential disruption in services and the uncertainty of how it may impact existing and future business relationships.”
The city has issued $2.75 billion of debt for Hartsfield-Jackson. The general revenue bonds are rated AA-minus by Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings, and Aa3 by Moody's Investors Service. Analysts have lauded managers for the airport’s strong finances and its low cost per passenger.
The airport also is in the midst of major capital program at called ATLNext. The $6 billion multi-year plan, to be predominately bond-financed, will modernize the domestic terminal, extend two concourses, add parking decks, expand cargo facilities and pave the way for a new hotel.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she was pleased that “logic and reason” prevailed regarding SB 131 and she looked forward to continuing a productive relationship with state lawmakers.
“Our focus remains on maintaining ownership and operations of the world’s busiest and most efficient airport, as we work daily to improve ethics and transparency throughout city operations,” Bottoms said.
Since taking office in January 2018, Bottoms and the City Council have implemented structural changes at City Hall, including an overhaul of procurement procedures and the hiring of a new chief procurement officer.
In March, the city established a new Board of Ethics and Independent Compliance and created the position of Independent Compliance Officer.