Five Georgias: South Georgia

This week’s Courier Herald column. You may find the previous parts of this series by following this link.

There was a time in the not too distant past that South Georgia ruled state politics. Given that the state was divided into “Atlanta” and “Other Georgia” and Atlanta was easily outnumbered by the others, being from rural Georgia was an asset if an aspiring young politician wanted a statewide leadership role.

South Georgia gave us the Talmadges, a President Carter, and Sam Nunn. Republicans had difficulty winning statewide until Bonaire’s Sonny Perdue and Moultrie’s Saxby Chambliss replaced recent Atlanta area Republicans as their standard bearers.

Within eight years the state had a super majority Republican legislature and the GOP held all statewide offices. Now twelve years later, South Georgia has ceded most of its positions of power in state government, and often finds itself questioning both its current economic models and future growth prospects.

South Georgia has no interest in being Atlanta nor having Atlanta’s problems, whether those of the urban core or that of the sprawling suburbs. It’s a bit tougher for many in South Georgia now that they are now distanced a bit from those of the similarly rural North Georgia mountains or their much closer neighbors on the Georgia coast.

Defining “South Georgia” for these political purposes requires taking a few liberties with geography. It’s border could be drawn on a map north of and parallel to Georgia’s fall line, which itself runs from Columbus to Macon to Augusta. “South” Georgia probably cheats into North Georgia on the Eastern side of the state, where rural north Georgia is far enough away from the Atlanta suburbs to keep “growth” a problem of stagnant population rather than trying to keep up with new residents.

What defines South Georgians is that they are the Georgians that are justified in feeling that they are being left behind. Having political power may have masked some of the initial population and economic issues for a while as leaders were able to use state coffers to apply some significant band aids. With the loss of significant political clout that had formerly represented the region, many of the other problems are now fully exposed.

Agriculture is the dominant industry of the region. The problem with this is like many industries, it no longer takes as much labor to produce crops as it used to. There’s also the issue that large farms are capital intensive, and are difficult to keep in family control from generation to generation. More and more of them are being sold to large agribusiness interests, many of whom are out of state.

At the same time the concept of multi-generational farming is threatened, the rest of the world is marching ahead fueled by technology and high speed rural broadband. Opportunities afforded to the next generation in most other regions of the state are severely limited throughout the parts of our state without access to quality broadband.
If that’s not enough to cause anxiety for the next generation, their parents and grandparents are finding it increasingly difficult to find access to healthcare. We’re not talking about the current Washington debate where insurance equals access. We’re talking about the availability of doctors and hospitals where those doctors can practice. Rural hospitals in Georgia are closing, and many more don’t have sustainable business models.

South Georgians are proud and hardworking people. They don’t want direct handouts, but they do want opportunities. If the other regions of the state can’t figure out how to partner and make these available, the drain on public assistance programs will continue to grow.

Rural hospitals already lose money on 80% of the patients they see. Medicaid programs that return roughly only 85% of costs to providers are a large part of this problem. And yet, people without jobs can’t buy private insurance.

As Atlanta and other parts of the state grew, South Georgia got its fair share of transportation money due to congressional balancing. Now, there are many communities connected by an excellent system of four lane roads with little traffic to be found. It’s almost like these roads were built in some places to help people leave faster.

South Georgia has the attention of many policy makers, and they have the benefit of currently having the Governor, Lt. Governor, and House Speaker from the rural North Georgia. Thus, they have sympathetic ears that can understand their plight.

Politics, however, is often about tradeoffs. They’ll need something to offer; some grounds to make a deal.

Each South Georgia community needs to develop a realistic plan for 21st century viability. If there is to be increased state investment, then those cards need to be on the table. But the ask(s) shouldn’t be to get whatever Atlanta is getting. Atlanta has different needs.

Atlanta needs traffic congestion relief. South Georgia needs economic development. The biggest barriers to that are healthcare access and cost, education quality, and broadband access.

There’s an opportunity for everyone to find a political “win” here. But it’s going to require each region to understand what it needs, and what others’ need in order for them to be a contributing part of the state.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation.

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