Us Versus Them, Legislature Style

This week’s Courier Herald column:

It’s fitting that the first day of the 2018 meeting of the Georgia General Assembly falls on the same day as the Georgia Bulldogs play for a National Championship. The last time UGA won a National title was 1980, and Notre Dame was the superpower program that stood in the way of glory.

Legendary columnist and patron saint of UGA football Lewis Grizzard reflected on the victory years later in a column titled “Us Versus Them, Gridiron Style”. He shared an anecdote prior to the game between a friend and his wife, where the husband scoffed at it being called just a game. It was absolutely not just a game the man protested, “it’s our way of life against theirs.” It was to explain that the battle was more than a game. It was personal. Quite personal.

The matchup between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama is quite different than the one between UGA and Notre Dame. This isn’t a distant elite power from a northern state. Bama is a member of the SEC family, a next door neighbor, and a sibling that has been much more successful on the gridiron than the Bulldogs. It’s personal, but in a very different way.

The outcome of the game was unknown at the time of this writing, which allows for a parallel for the battles that we are facing under the other dome in downtown Atlanta. The state legislature gaveled in to its annual forty-day session Monday, just hours before the big game. We won’t know how it ends, or even when it will end, for a while.

The first big battle that began to spill into public last Friday was how long this legislative session will last. Some within the family of legislators want to ensure that sine die comes sooner rather than later, in order to legally begin fundraising for 2018 primaries scheduled for May. Others want to ensure there is adequate time to consider serious and complex legislative issues which are often avoided in election years.

Two of those issues are specifically regional: Transit and Rural Development.

Transit is a misnomer as it is a broad name for a basket of potential solutions to solve a specific problem. Metro Atlanta is adding residents at a rate of 1 million people per decade. We’ve outgrown our ability to add lanes and build roads around the problem. Without a solution to continue to move people and freight within the region during peak times, Atlanta could become a victim of its own success.

Likewise, “Rural Development” is a label for a basket of issues faced in parts of the state that lack density to provide services at levels found in suburban and urban parts of Georgia. This includes access to healthcare and availability and reliability of broadband among other issues.

The lack of basic consistent 21st century services has created additional problems of economic development and negative population growth. It’s demonstrably harder to recruit high quality jobs to rural Georgia. As a result, many parts of the state are seeing declining population. Their way of life is disappearing as younger generations move away for economic reasons.

These broad swath of issues labeled as “transit” and “rural development” have two things in common. They won’t be easy or cheap to fix.

The way most political problems are solved in the legislature is that a problem is identified, and something is given to each geographic constituency of the state to make things “fair”. These problems become harder to solve when the problems are uniquely regional. There is a finite amount of money in the budget. The money available to solve specific problems becomes a battle of our way of life against theirs.

It doesn’t have to be that way with these two issues. If leaders and their constituents come to realize that there’s something here for everyone, an easy tradeoff can be constructed. Atlanta needs congestion relief. Rural Georgia needs healthcare stabilized and broadband upgraded and expanded.

There are real consequences of approaching this as a battle of our way of life against theirs. Georgia’s leaders instead should use this legislative session to begin to sell solutions as a package where each corner of the state gets its fair share, but a share that is directly tailored to unique challenges and problems.

That is how Georgia will remain atop the rankings. It’s also how non-Atlanta parts of Georgia will be able to feel like they’re equal members of the team.


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