Amid the hoopla of Monday’s college football championship game, another show comes to town that morning in the state Capitol when the General Assembly begins its new session.
Needless to say, the game inspires more excitement, perhaps even among lawmakers themselves. But once the confetti is swept up and the trophy awarded, there is serious work to be done.
Election year sessions tend to head in one of two directions: Either members buckle down and get a lot done in order to earn voters’ approval, or they veer off into a lot of look-see items meant to please specific interest groups, industries or voters. Sometimes we get both.
It will mark the final legislative agenda for Gov. Nathan Deal, who will deliver his last State of the State address before handing off to a new chief executive a year from now. He can rightly boast of a growing economy and shrinking unemployment rate in a state that has rebounded nicely from the Great Recession days of austere budget cuts. State coffers are again flush with tax revenue, up 10 percent in December and 4 percent for the fiscal year, an extra $445 million. That increase has helped fund key priorities in recent years.
But not everyone has reaped such benefits. Lawmakers seek to address the widening disparity between the more affluent metro areas and struggling rural counties. The idea of “two Georgias” is nothing new, with the agrarian, rural areas of the state feeling neglected as more resources are focused on an international city of 5 million people.
Many Georgia counties are bleeding human capital. Half have lost population since 2010, and 36 have more deaths than births. Even as the state has grown, 71 percent of new residents have migrated to urban areas, only 7 percent to rural areas, not enough to offset losses. In fact, 11 counties had lower populations in 2010 than recorded in 1860. Millennials, in particular, are vacating these areas in big numbers.
Hall County is right on the cusp of this divide, with South Hall more connected to the metro area, North Hall more linked to the mountain region and Gainesville right in the middle. Thus, lawmakers in the Hall County delegation are among those proposing legislation to address rural concerns, specifically health, education and high tech, each interconnected with the others.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, created a Rural Development Council to address some of these issues. Its members include a few from North Georgia: Reps. Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville, Terry Rogers of Clarkesville and Terry England of Barrow County.
The panel’s ideas include beefing up rural tax digests by providing a 10-year state income tax break of up to $50,000 for those willing to move to counties in need of fresh blood and brain power.
Similar incentives are being considered to lure more doctors to rural areas where medical staffing is critical, and additional state funding for regional technical schools, like Lanier Technical College and others, that offer job training in several fast-track industries.
One challenge is how to expand broadband internet service to underserved areas, including North Georgia. Weak Wi-Fi and “dead spots” in sparsely populated areas keep residents from being fully connected to the world. That lack of speedy, effective communication hampers commerce, education and even public safety. Lawmakers seek to ease this through targeted tax incentives for infrastructure in these areas and easing regulation obstacles.
Also of concern is education, where small school districts face funding shortfalls due to a diminished local tax base. The state devised a funding formula in the 1980s to fix that disparity, called Quality Basic Education, but it’s long overdue for an update.
Deal convened a special commission to suggest such reform in 2015, and its recommendations included more money for K-12 and pre-kindergarten, a merit pay component to retain the best teachers and revising the formula to help struggling rural school systems.
Last year, Deal promised in his State of the State address that those recommendations would be included in the next fiscal year budget provided this session. It remains to be seen exactly what will be proposed and how well it addresses the growing needs of small school districts.
A third component of rural struggles is health care, particularly the crisis faced by hospitals unable to meet rising costs while struggling to maintain staffing and services. When Deal chose to bypass expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act over fear of being stuck with the long-term bill, lawmakers were unable to devise a workable alternative to help rural medical centers survive. With fewer patients carrying insurance or receiving Medicaid and thus unable to pay, hospitals bore the brunt of those costs and haven’t been able to stay out of the red.
Reports show half of the state’s rural hospitals are vulnerable, and at least seven have closed in the last five years. In addition to the loss of health services for residents, the closures have a negative economic impact, taking with them jobs, taxpayers and satellite businesses that thrive near a busy health care complex, leaving a big hole in communities. And it forces patients to travel farther for treatment, sometimes the difference between life and death.
Among solutions proposed are increasing scholarship incentives for medical students to stay and work in Georgia medical facilities, and tax incentives for businesses and individuals to make donations. In addition, broadband internet improvements would help doctors with virtual diagnoses and treatment.
Initiatives to fund transportation, including more public transit, may not trickle down to rural areas where traffic congestion is less of an issue. Yet to grow economically, these communities also need effective ways to move freight and people about if they are to attract new industries.
All these issues present huge challenges for a state already looking to split up its budget pie strategically where it will do the most good. The hope among local legislators and others throughout the state is that metro Atlanta’s claim to the biggest slice won’t leave less for other areas that need more state assistance.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.