Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian

ATLANTA – Georgia lawmakers left the Gold Dome early Thursday after passing legislation loaded with business tax breaks and firing a shot across the bow of Delta Air Lines for criticizing a controversial election law overhaul.

The General Assembly sent to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk a bill that would provide new or expanded tax credits to medical equipment and pharmaceutical manufacturers, performing arts venues, companies that repair expensive yachts and short-line railroads.

Other beneficiaries of the package would include developers of “mega-site” corporate projects and the aerospace industry, a tax credit aimed primarily at Marietta’s Lockheed plant.

Supporters pitched the legislation as a way to help businesses hurt by the economic impact of COVID-19.

However, a joint House-Senate conference committee that negotiated the final version of the bill scrapped a controversial grant program aimed at rural Georgia. The state approved an initial round of funding for the program known as CAPCO early in the last decade, but critics argued its impact on creating jobs has never been evaluated in Georgia or proven effective elsewhere.

Proving they can both give and take away in the same bill, the conference committee also included legislation introduced early in this year’s session by Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, requiring the state to conduct periodic audits of tax credit initiatives.

The measure calls for independent auditors to review up to five tax credit programs each year to determine whether their economic impact justifies the loss of state tax revenue.

“This is a large bill,” Albers said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “It brings checks and balances. It has us measure the return on investment, and it keeps Georgia the No.-1 place to do business.”

Meanwhile, leaders in the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives took aim at Atlanta-based Delta in separate tax legislation after CEO Ed Bastian released a statement on Wednesday arguing a GOP-backed elections reform bill lawmakers passed last week will it make it harder for Georgians to vote, particularly in minority neighborhoods.

“Since the bill’s inception, Delta joined other major Atlanta corporations to work closely with elected officials from both parties,” Bastian wrote in an open letter to Delta employees. “We had some success in eliminating the most suppressive tactics that some had proposed. However … the final bill is unacceptable and does not match Delta’s values.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, took offense at Bastian’s statement.

“Some of the language reflected a complete lack of understanding of the bill,” Ralston said shortly after midnight Thursday after the House had approved legislation to take away a state sales tax exemption on jet fuel that primarily benefits Delta. “I was disappointed in that.”

However, the General Assembly’s bark proved worse than its bite when the state Senate declined to consider the removal of the tax break before adjourning the 2021 session, ending the threat.