Two in five residents of Stewart County in rural Southwest Georgia live in poverty. In middle Georgia’s Telfair County, almost 1 in 3 residents is poor. This legislative session, state lawmakers will ask what they can do about it.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle gave the first sign the Georgia General Assembly would be digging into rural poverty and development when he spoke to the Kiwanis Club of Gainesville in July.
“I can tell you fundamentally that metro Atlanta, certainly in our area, we’re seeing great economic prosperity,” Cagle told the Kiwanis Club. “But you can go to Sen. Tyler Harper’s area or Sen. Greg Kirk’s area in Sumter County and Ocilla, and you’ll see they’re losing population.”
In December, Hall County’s state delegation also honed in on rural issues. State representatives and senators agreed that metro Atlanta was reaping the economic benefits of infrastructure development, job creation and general prosperity.
Metro Atlanta counties are seeing poverty rates in the low teens and close to the single digits, while farther flung counties are seeing rates consistently higher than 20 and 25 percent.
Now, look for lawmakers to try to push that prosperity outside of the metro area — starting with rural broadband internet access to help business growth and health care.
Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said he would support a sales tax exemption for spending on rural broadband infrastructure. Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he’s aiming for a scholarship program that would reward doctors for studying and staying in Georgia — especially in rural areas.
Lawmakers are likely to debate a tax on telecommunications services such as phone lines and TV plans — and maybe even on high-speed internet streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu — to subsidize rural broadband development in the state.
Many of the state’s rural policy recommendations come from the House’s Rural Development Council, which published its final recommendations in 2017 that focus on rural workforce and population (both declining), broadband access, economic development and education
The council also proposed a 10-year, $50,000 income tax deduction for new rural residents filing individually or jointly, or a $100,000 deduction for people moving to areas where local governments have created incentives for high-earners to relocate.
Other council recommendations call on lawmakers to increase grant funding for education in rural areas, streamline regulations and fund broadband development in rural Georgia and allow the creation of “micro” hospitals to operate in rural areas.
Federal funding of a health insurance program for poor children has state lawmakers anxiously wondering how they might have to react.
“(Congress) did inject some money for a short amount of time,” said state Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “I fully expect them to refund that, but only time will tell.”
Groups outside the Gold Dome also are concerned, including the Georgia Hospital Association.
The group has set Children’s Health Insurance Program funding as one of its top legislative priorities.
Georgia’s version of the CHIP is PeachCare, which started 20 years ago to provide coverage to children who do not qualify for Medicaid but live below the poverty line. The Department of Community Health has said more than 131,000 children were covered by the program in fiscal year 2017.
Dr. Frank McDonald, a Gainesville neurologist who is the 2017-18 president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said he thinks funding will be reauthorized.
“What legislator can come to his state and say he’s not funding health care for kids?” he said.
Still, the Georgia Hospital Association is concerned with Medicaid cuts in general.
“We’re still working with Congress to delay those cuts while we work on a solution,” spokesman Ethan James said.
One other concern for state officials that has federal implications is Congress’ recent passage of a tax reform package that, beginning in 2019, eliminates the requirement for Americans to have health insurance.
“We certainly expect that to create more uninsured,” James said.
The big unknown is whether that change will have any backlash in Georgia, said Hawkins, who has been appointed vice chair of the House Health Appropriations subcommittee.
“We won’t know until there’s some time for the dust to settle on that,” he said.
The requirement was part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which also required insurers to include certain coverages, such as free annual physicals.
“I really would like to look at going back to have major medical policies offered — that’s something I’m going to look at,” said Hawkins, adding he’s not sure how that might intersect with federal law.
“That’s a pretty heavy subject, so I’ll have a research crew and legislative counsel working on that,” he added.
Paying for new and improved roads will still be a top priority for Georgia lawmakers, but transit, and even the seemingly far-flung idea of driverless cars, will be on the agenda.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s appropriations bill for 2018, House Bill 44, includes $162 million in new transportation funds. With 2017 transportation spending at $1.7 billion, the new spending will push the state roads budget to almost $2 billion.
Much of that new money is coming from House Bill 170, the 2015 bill that restructured and in most cases raised the state’s fuel taxes.
The bill has been aimed at much-needed maintenance projects but is also pushing forward major road projects, such as a look at widening Interstate 985 in South Hall.
And then there’s public transportation.
Particularly being considered is a regional transit authority that would help metro Atlanta transit providers, such as Gwinnett County Transit, which has a station off I-985, with coordinating routes more efficiently.
“Everybody operates in their own silo and, when you’re talking about transit, you cannot just think about county lines,” said Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, chairman of the House Commission on Transit Governance & Funding, which has held public meetings throughout the state.
State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the involvement of several state and local agencies is causing “a lot of duplication and overlap, and there’s not a lot of coordination between those.”
“We think there’s a way to create more efficiencies, expand services and create a better product for everybody at a lower cost to the taxpayer.”
In a more futuristic effort, Gooch is working with the Georgia Department of Transportation on a plan to install fiber optic cable along state roads that would provide a wifi connection in guiding driverless cars.
“They are evolving quickly in Georgia and around the country,” said Gooch, who expects legislation on the new technology.
Major new funding for education-related expenses is expected to come out of this year’s session of the Georgia General Assembly.
The state Department of Education is looking to increase its budget by $550 million in the next fiscal year, with upward of $350 million being directed toward payments in the teacher retirement network. Some 100,000 former teachers, administrators and staff currently collect public pensions.
Additionally, the General Assembly will have the opportunity to consider a report from a lawmakers and educators, which was delivered to Gov. Nathan Deal last month, advocating for the development of a leadership academy to train and retain effective principals and administrators for Georgia’s public schools.
In its research, the committee found that students in schools led by a “highly effective” principal perform higher on testing; truancy declines; and teachers remain on the job longer.
Moreover, the report finds that principals have the greatest impact in schools with high levels of poverty among predominantly low-performing minorities.
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield noted that more than 50 percent of current principals are eligible for retirement or will be within five years.
Finally, there are calls every legislative session for lawmakers to review and modify the funding formula for public schools. Whether any changes are made in 2018 is anyone’s guess.
Adoption and foster care
Foster care advocates across the state are hoping 2018 brings changes that allow volunteers to more easily serve with more than one child-placing agency at a time.
A Senate bill that would improve services in this way, while also providing continued safety for children and mobilizing more people in the community to help vulnerable children, stalled in a House committee last year.
There could be liability issues if a child is moved from a home supported by one agency into another home supported by a separate agency, but advocates said they are working on a new approach this time around.
“Right now, we are working with (the Division of Family and Children Services) to develop a plan that will involve input from all the relevant parties, including child-placing agencies and congregant homes, and would not require a new law,” said Andy Cook, CEO of Promise686, a foster care advocacy and support organization. “We’ll see what happens in the next couple of weeks.”
Meanwhile, advocates are waiting to see if changes will be made this year to how foster care adoption works.
Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a bill last year called the Supporting and Strengthening Families Act, which would have given parents the ability to transfer power of attorney of their children to a foster care agency for a year without going through the courts.
Deal said the bill would have opened a can of worms and worried about a lack of oversight for such a process. He called for lawmakers to update the state’s adoption laws with a comprehensive bill this year.