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Our Views: Three welcome gifts for Georgia
Progress in water talks, broadband stimulus and new speaker offer high hopes for 2010
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Progress often is measured in tiny steps barely perceptible to the keenest observer. Yet at other times, it comes all at once in a torrent.

That was the case this week in North Georgia, where events came in confluence to provide a ray of hope in three key areas as we close out the year.

Our week began when the governors of Georgia, Alabama and Florida gathered in Montgomery, Ala., to discuss sharing water, their first such meeting in two years, and the first five months after a federal court ruling threatened our state’s future use of Lake Lanier as a water supply.

For months, it appeared that Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama and Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida were content to cash in their chips and stand pat, buoyed by the decision from U.S. District Court Judge Paul Magnuson in their favor. In addition to seeking legal and congresssional relief, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue wanted to reopen talks with his neighboring colleagues.

That meeting finally happened, and all three leaders emerged encouraged by their progress and promising a solution to the tri-state water wars they can put before Congress sometime next year.

Our initial reaction is skepticism; they said the same thing after their last meeting in December 2007, and at other times during the two decades this dispute has raged. Soon after the handshakes and promises of cooperation, each governor would retreat back home and begin plotting to grab a greater share of the water.

But maybe the time frame will work this time. All three men exit office after next year, Perdue and Riley at the end of their terms, Crist running for a U.S. Senate seat. That means they can put aside politics (though only to a certain extent with Crist) and focus on a plan to share water in the common river systems that all three need to prosper. And reaching a deal could provide Perdue with the legacy that is lacking from his term in office.

It also means that the 2010 campaigns to replace each man could revolve around water policy. Candidates could vow to continue the spirit of cooperation, or they can play devil’s advocates and seek to protect their own states’ self interests above the desire for a mutual agreement.

As voters, we can do our part in Georgia to see that candidates for governor get on the right side of the issue and make it a key focus of their campaigns. Otherwise, the taps will be squeezed shut in 2012 and the region’s progress will come to a halt.

Our area also found itself tapped into a flowing wellspring of a different sort Thursday, courtesy of a visit to Dawsonville by Vice President Joe Biden. After touring the Impulse Manufacturing plant, Biden announced an initiative to bring broadband Internet to rural counties in Georgia and elsewhere, funded by nearly $2 billion in federal stimulus money.

The laying of fiber optic cables in eight North Georgia counties, at a cost of $33.5 million, would speed up Web access for residents, schools and, most importantly, businesses like Impulse. Even more vital, it would make our region more attractive to businesses looking to relocate, bringing jobs, tax dollars and economic growth to a state badly in need of all three.

While many have understandably expressed concern over spending stimulus money to boost the economy, the idea of adding broadband is a nonpartisan, win-win concept. It’s clear that to compete in a global, high-tech world, everyone needs the connectivity that high-speed Internet offers. The money spent, if spent wisely (a big, "if," when the federal government is involved), could result in a lucrative investment for Georgia’s economy.

And that same day came news of one final boost for the upper half of our state. State House Republicans gathered in the Capitol to select their new leaders for the 2010 legislature, the key vote coming to select a speaker to replace the displaced, and disgraced, Glenn Richardson. GOP members selected Rep. David Ralston of Blue Ridge as their chamber’s top official, a move that will be made official when the full House convenes in January.

Ralston bared his independent chops when he challenged Richardson as speaker earlier this year and lost, backed by Hall County Reps. Doug Collins and Tommy Benton. This time, House members were willing to put a reformer in place to help regain the momentum that ebbed after they gained the majority in 2004.

Ralston, a North Georgia College & State University graduate (and — full disclosure — a former Times reporter), promises stronger ethics enforcement, a key step to regaining public trust after allegations of Richardson’s affair with a lobbyist. He also has promised to end his predecessor’s divisive use of "hawks" to drive legislation in and out of committees.

On first blush, Ralston appears to have the calm, no-nonsense demeanor that can help unite a fractured House membership and get the legislature back to solving the state’s major issues — water, economic growth, jobs, transportation, education — that seem to crop up every year.

And after the tumult of Richardson’s reign, any change would have been viewed as a step in the right direction.

Anyway, we can hope. As we can as well with water talks and with broadband stimulus. As a rocky 2009 enters its final weeks, the good news is a welcome way to ring in the holidays and 2010.

Regional events