At a big business-sponsored breakfast at the start of the legislative session, some of Georgia’s top politicians pledged to prioritize the state’s economic health, and the state’s chamber of commerce announced a turn toward rural concerns.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs and Issue breakfast puts Georgia lawmakers in the same room with hundreds of business leaders from across the state.
Chamber President and CEO Chris Clark took his moment in front of the crowd Tuesday to emphasize rural Georgia.
“We can’t have a healthy economy if over half of our counties lose population and close hospitals,” he said.
The chamber will work on legislation to help businesses in rural Georgia, he said, such as making it easier to navigate the complex business of providing broadband internet. The chamber will also hold more events statewide and open a regional office in Tifton that will focus on rural economic prosperity.
All that is in addition to a chamber agenda that emphasizes familiar topics such as cutting red tape and funding a good education for young Georgians.
“I am excited about the emphasis on rural Georgia,” said Nipper Bunn, chairman of the board of the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce, who was watching from a table at the side of the packed room.
“It seems as though we’ve had ‘two Georgias’ for quite a while,” Bunn said, using a political phrase that’s been around more than two decades. One of the Georgias consists of the mostly urban and suburban counties that attract the most new residents, jobs and investments. The other Georgia is the rest of the state.
Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, all Republicans, spoke at the breakfast. But ahead of a policy speech scheduled for Wednesday, Deal’s remarks emphasized what’s happened on his watch so far, including a buildup of the state’s rainy day fund, more spending on transportation, and an uptick of nontraditional education programs such as apprenticeships.
Cagle told the assembled business leaders that one of his top priorities this legislative session is “a comprehensive regulatory reform task force that will recommend reducing the unnecessary regulations that cost us jobs and make us less competitive in the marketplace.”
Ralston said he plans to work on issues that will move the state and its economy forward.
“The sun is shining on Georgia and we’ve got work to do,” said the Blue Ridge lawmaker.
He’s pitching a new state commission on transit governance and funding. That does not just apply to the subway in Atlanta. MARTA is only the biggest of dozens of transit agencies statewide.
Ralston said Georgia must do more to mitigate road congestion, move freight and attract companies. Transit can help in all three areas, he said.
He said the commission will recommend ways that state can partner with transit systems.
Ralston also mentioned a new military task force that will be in charge of figuring out ways to help bases and base communities get ready for new missions.
“These bases don’t just support our nation’s strategic defenses. They are economic engines,” Ralston said.
April Bragg, the president and CEO of the Robins Regional Chamber, said she’s excited to hear about the continued focus on supporting business, on the needs of rural Georgia and on transit.
The new military task force will be important too.
“Georgia’s one of the few states that doesn’t already have that kind of task force set up at the statewide level,” Bragg said. “We’re very excited to see the permanency of that military focus. … We think that Robins will see a definite impact to having that.”
An earlier version of this story misstated Nipper Bunn’s title. He is chairman of the board of the Forsyth-Monroe County Chamber of Commerce.
Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee