Opinion Columns & Blogs

Legislative ideas to slow rural decline

Almost 150 years have passed since the seat of Georgia’s government left this city built for the purpose. It only feels that long since the rest of the state had as much influence and prosperity as Milledgeville’s replacement, a future metropolis called Atlanta.

Injecting new life into far-flung communities long in decline has been the mission of a state House council that met here Wednesday to approve its initial raft of dozens of recommendations. There has been some skepticism about whether the lawmakers would do anything real or simply pay lip service to rural Georgia as in the past. But this first list, whose items must still go through the legislative process, is substantive and significant.

The proposals include subsidizing the expansion of broadband Internet service into rural counties, spending more to maintain the short-line railroads that carry goods from across Georgia to the coast for export, and aligning k-12 and higher-education programs more clearly with the needs of industry (and thus with job opportunities) across the state.

“The ultimate goal of this group is empowering private business to expand and grow jobs in rural Georgia and lift the quality of life for a major, major part of this state,” Speaker David Ralston, who pushed to create the council earlier this year, told its members Wednesday. “That’s what we have to keep our eye on.”

Several recommendations aim at expanding access to health care in rural Georgia, where many hospitals remain in danger of closing. They range from requiring nursing homes to have telemedicine capabilities to addressing the doctor shortage in rural areas by allowing nurses and physicians assistants to perform more duties. Most controversially, the council recommends tweaking the Certificate of Need process for counties with fewer than 85,000 residents, while ending it for larger counties.

In all, expect at least five bills to be filed for the 2018 legislative session, one for each policy area: work force, economic development, broadband, health care and education.

Some of the proposals are grander than others. Some make more sense than others.

One that merits skepticism is a plan to offer tens of thousands of dollars in tax breaks to people who move to stagnant or shrinking counties. Under a multi-pronged proposal, a family earning up to $100,000 a year not only might pay no state income tax for 10 years, but could pay sharply reduced property taxes during the same period. There would be no strings attached in terms of job creation or skills to address a local shortage.

The idea is to put a kind of tax-code tourniquet on the decades-long bleeding of these communities, which has robbed them not just of bodies but of their brightest minds and, in theory, most capable leaders in government and industry.

I understand the sentiment, but it seems like a policy ripe for unintended consequences and abuse. Could it unwittingly encourage movement out of some rural counties? Would it, or should it, apply to recent college graduates coming back home? One can also imagine a reshuffling of highly-paid professionals from one bedroom community to another without having a real impact on the area economy.

Perhaps they’ll thread the needle to get that one right. Perhaps not. But regardless of what happens with that particular idea, plenty of others on the list could really chip away at the barriers to growth in rural Georgia. This is a good start.

Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.