Georgia's governor on Wednesday criticized the "unbecoming squabble" that has engulfed the state Capitol since fellow Republicans threatened to punish Delta Air Lines for cutting business ties with the National Rifle Association.
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Gov. Nathan Deal, serving his final year in office, broke his silence on the controversy during a news conference with an apparent jab at candidates running to succeed him. He said a tax overhaul bill caught up in the debate had been "put at risk by the types of antics that tend to plague election years."
Deal did not name Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a gubernatorial contender who tweeted Monday that he would kill a proposed tax break on jet fuel as retribution after Atlanta-based Delta said it would no longer offer discounted fares to NRA members.
Fellow Republican candidates joined Cagle in shaming Delta, one of Georgia's largest employers. After three days of national headlines, Deal sought to assuage anyone who might doubt Georgia's business-friendly reputation — including Amazon, which chose the state as a finalist for its second headquarters.
"Ours is a welcoming state, the epitome of Southern hospitality," Deal said. "We were not elected to give the late-night talk show hosts further fodder for their monologues, or to act with the type of immaturity that has caused so many in our society to be skeptical about politics."
But Delta also shares some of the blame, the governor said.
"I've (told Delta's) CEO that we didn't start this," Deal said. "Delta made a statement that caused this dispute to erupt."
Regardless, a proposal supported by the governor to end the state's sales tax on jet fuel — which would primarily benefit Delta — remains in jeopardy because of the controversy. The Republican-dominated Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday stripped the tax break from a broader tax bill.
Deal said he intends to sign the larger tax measure, which the full Senate is expected to vote on Thursday, in whatever form it passes. He said he will keep pursuing the jet fuel tax exemption as a separate issue.
Delta's decision to cut ties with the NRA came after the deadly Valentine's Day school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead.
Before the governor spoke Wednesday, Cagle defended his position on Fox News Channel, arguing that Delta had taken "punitive" action against defenders of the Second Amendment and was unfairly targeting "law-abiding gun owners."
"We should never be forced to choose between our values and growing our economy. We stand for both!" Cagle tweeted shortly after his "Fox & Friends" appearance.
But a Democratic gubernatorial candidate said she believes Cagle's political threat could be illegal.
In a Wednesday letter, Stacey Evans urged Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Republican, to investigate whether Cagle's recent tweet broke bribery, extortion and ethics laws.
Cagle stands to benefit economically from the threat as a member of the NRA, Evans said. She also said Cagle's campaign for governor could also benefit.
"Cagle threatened to use his elected office to impose retribution against Delta ... unless Delta conformed to his personal ideology," she wrote.
Cagle's spokesman declined comment. The attorney general's office did not respond to an email and telephone call seeking comment.
Delta employs 33,000 workers statewide in Georgia, and its busy Atlanta hub has made Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport the busiest in the world.
Airlines would have owed the state an estimated $38 million less annually under the proposal removed from the tax-cut package by the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday. Prior to the NRA controversy, the bill had easily passed the House last week with the jet fuel exemption included. If the amended measure passes the Senate and is sent to a conference committee, the jet fuel proposal could still be added back.
Democrats, who control roughly one-third of the votes in both the Georgia House and Senate, say picking a fight with the airline is directly at odds with the state's business-friendly policies that legislators so regularly tout.
"If we lose corporations and jobs because of political pandering, that's problematic," said state Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat.
More than a dozen companies, including Metlife, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Best Western, Wyndham and United Airlines, have ended NRA partnerships since the shooting in Parkland, Florida. Police say the suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, killed 17 people with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
After Cagle's tweet, Democratic officials in New York and other states began making overtures to Delta.
On "Fox & Friends" Wednesday, Cagle scoffed at the notion that Delta, which recently signed a 20-year lease extension with Atlanta's airport, would move to New York.
"When you look at our tax rate, our cost of living along with our tort system, our regulatory environment and our workforce, we're second to none," Cagle said. "I don't think New York has anything to offer Delta that we do not already offer."
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed to this report.