Rural Georgia struggles getting lawmakers’ attention

A pecan harvester runs through a Pearson Farm orchard outside Fort Valley in this October 2015 file photo. The challenges of rural Georgia’s communities, such as jobs and health care, are getting more attention in the state Legislature.
A pecan harvester runs through a Pearson Farm orchard outside Fort Valley in this October 2015 file photo. The challenges of rural Georgia’s communities, such as jobs and health care, are getting more attention in the state Legislature. The Telegraph

There’s a phrase that more and more people are using at the state Capitol, and not everybody says it with a country twang.

Rural Georgia.

Lawmakers are talking about the problems that plague some of Georgia’s smaller communities. Main Street businesses that have closed. Financially struggling hospitals. Poor internet connections. Schools that don’t offer all the classes that will help students get into the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech. Young people moving to cities and never coming back.

Now there’s a move afoot in the state House to try and look at all these things comprehensively.

So far it doesn’t have a formal name, but House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is calling it the rural development initiative. He mentioned it in a speech in front of Georgia mayors on Monday.

It could take the form of a study group or a working group or a commission, Ralston’s spokesman, Kaleb McMichen, said. But the speaker wants to put a focus on creating the right environment in rural Georgia for private industry to create jobs.

In Terry England’s office in the state Capitol, the décor recalls rural Georgia: two rocking chairs that would suit a front porch, an award from the 4-H Club, a jacket from the National FFA Organization, formerly known as Future Farmers of America.

Sitting in the office, England, R-Auburn, and his colleague Jay Powell, a Camilla Republican, said they’ve been talking and thinking a lot about rural issues. They also happen to be two of the highest-ranking state House members. England chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Powell chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which hears tax bills.

The state is growing, but a lot of that growth is centered on Atlanta, England said. That’s fine, he said, because some important infrastructure is in metro Atlanta.

“But yet at the same time, it’s making it very difficult on our rural communities to survive because there’s nothing happening there,” he said.

In the state Capitol, bills are sent to committees based on what they address, such as transportation bills or health care bills. But that shorthand masks a distinction between different problems in different parts of the state. For example, health care may be expensive for a lot of Georgians, but the problem can be even worse in rural counties where there are no doctors at all to visit at any price.

“I think what we would like to do is first identify the areas that rural Georgia’s needs are different than other parts of the state,” Powell said.

The needs of rural Georgia are starting to get more attention. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce recently announced its own rural development plans and said it would open an office in Tifton.

Every week when the Legislature is in session, dozens of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle attend Rural Caucus meetings. Some of the folks are more root than trunk when it comes to rural Georgia — they grew up in a rural place but moved to the city, or they watched their home district become a suburb. They hear a different presentation every week about agriculture, rural hospitals or some other topic.

State Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, is its chairman.

“We’ve got a lot of conversation about rural Georgia and the problems that are in rural Georgia,” Watson. said “We’ve just got to get everybody dialed in, I think, and focused. Because I think the momentum’s there, the concern is there. And a lot of (the issues) are linked together. You get the broadband, you get the health care and you’ll get the economic development.”

State lawmakers have made some moves to work on these rural issues in the past couple of years. There has been some cost.

Last year, they approved a tax credit for donors to struggling rural hospitals — the state will give away up to $180 million in tax credits over three years. In parts of the state, medical professionals and ambulances are starting to use high-tech telemedicine tools to link to patients for online consultations. A rural broadband study committee has recommended about two dozen ideas to make it cheaper and easier for broadband companies to roll out service in rural Georgia. Some of those ideas involve tax breaks.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, led the push for a telemedicine pilot program that’s going on in Hancock County. Though he’s from Macon, his district covers all or parts of seven counties.

“One of the problems in rural areas is health care; another thing is is broadband connectivity. Those issues cost plenty of money,” Lucas said.

The Hancock County project did get a $100,000 state grant to get started. The state has also spent $3 million to seed a separate program to link rural ambulances to emergency rooms via telemedicine.

Powell foresees the need for some kind of investment to jump-start a turnaround in rural Georgia. But he does not want a scattershot approach that just works on one problem.

“That’s why it has to be a coordinated plan, because if all you do is attract doctors, then you are going to have to subsidize them from now until kingdom come,” Powell said. “But if you’re doing jobs and doctors and education and transportation, then at some point in time you develop a self-sustaining community.”

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee