Georgia prepares for an unprecedented move to land Amazon
Posted January 10, 2018 2:26 p.m. EST
ATLANTA -- Landing Amazon's second headquarters will take an unprecedented package of incentives, and Georgia's leaders are prepared to do something unprecedented to secure them.
Gov. Nathan Deal and leading lawmakers united behind a plan Wednesday to call a special legislative session to hash out the lucrative offerings for Amazon if the tech giant picks metro Atlanta as a top finalist for the $5 billion project.
The Republican governor, entering his final legislative session in office, told a crowd of business leaders and lawmakers that the state would offer the biggest incentive package in its history to lure Amazon and the 50,000 high-paying jobs it promises. But he said it would be "presumptuous" to try to guess what Amazon is going to do.
"It may be months before Amazon makes a decision or even narrows their choices," he said at the annual Eggs & Issues breakfast. "We cannot waste valuable time, energy and effort when what we should be doing is focusing on enhancing those issues which have already made us an attractive candidate to Amazon."
The state's Olympics-like bid for Amazon -- and the $1 billion figure it might take to win the deal -- has loomed over the legislative session that started this week. Plans for a special session would essentially put the debate on the back burner so lawmakers can shift to other initiatives.
"That takes off a lot of initiatives that might have been thrown on the table," House Speaker David Ralston said. "It gives us a chance to be organized. This is a big, game-changing economic development project, and I don't have any preconceived notions going in."
Georgia is one of 238 official bidders for Amazon's North American headquarters, a project known as HQ2. The international sweepstakes has triggered an all-out competition for the development that evokes memories of Atlanta's chase for the Olympics in the 1990s.
Securing the deal will surely require a trove of incentives, with some analysts saying it could take at least $1 billion in tax breaks, transportation upgrades and grants. And that could be a tough vote for lawmakers from both parties in an election year.
Some Republicans are wary of offering a package that could include record tax breaks to one of the largest and most prosperous companies in the nation. And Democratic critics have called on lawmakers to instead pump those funds into the state's transportation infrastructure and education system.
The state's political and business establishment, however, has largely formed a united front in the quest for Amazon. They say it could potentially remake Georgia's economic landscape if it wins the prize.
"Let's be honest with ourselves: This is the largest economic development deal in the history of America," Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said. "It would require action by the Legislature if we are successful. And I'm very optimistic that we can land Amazon in the state, and we're in great position to do that."
Already, top Republicans have tried to seed the ground for Amazon by warning that reigniting a contentious debate over "religious liberty" could jeopardize the state's bid. Industries have responded to similar legislation in other states by backing out of expansion plans.
State leaders are also preparing a new wave of business-friendly legislation. Deal on Wednesday backed a constitutional amendment to create a statewide system of business courts to help more speedily resolve financial fights.
Georgia officials delivered the state's official pitch for the project in October, and state leaders expect Amazon officials to scour a range of potential sites in Atlanta -- though Deal and other officials were tight-lipped about whether the company's executives have ventured to Georgia yet.
"We really harm ourselves when we try to judge ourselves what's on their mind," Deal said about the incentive package. "I would rather (have) them tell us what is on their mind and make adjustments accordingly."
Amazon's decision is expected this year, and Atlanta is among a range of top contenders that also could include Austin, Texas, Denver, Toronto and Washington. If Atlanta is named a top-three finalist and Deal summons lawmakers for a special legislative session, expect a debate over the range of incentives for the project.
"Every economic development deal is done based on a return on investment. Georgia is not going to give away the farm," said Cagle, who is among seven leading candidates running for governor. "We're going to be focused on analyzing this in a financial way, no different than Amazon is. Georgia operates very much like a business."
Deal, for his part, asked state leaders at the annual breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to pull together behind the bid. After the meeting, he was asked about the prospect of landing the project in his final year in office.
"This," Deal said, "would be the cherry on the top of the soda."
Greg Bluestein writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: gbluestein(at)ajc.com.
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