The next new idea: Paying people to move to rural Georgia

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

If you're ever in the mood for a road trip and find yourself in Bainbridge, down in the southwest corner of Georgia, hop in your car and head for the Atlantic coast.

Set your cap for Brunswick — or St. Marys, perhaps.

Your GPS will send you south to Interstate 10. Toss it out the window. Stay north of the Florida line and keep to the less-traveled roads.

You will pass ghost town after ghost town. An abandoned community here. The skeleton of a cotton gin there. You’ll get a quick but authentic feel for a Georgia that has been in decline for more than a century, and is still in the process of vanishing.

If you’re a doctor or lawyer, engineer or architect – perhaps fresh out of college and burdened with student loans - a sudden thought might pass your lips as you drive through the emptied region: “They couldn’t pay me enough to live here.”

Nonetheless, the Legislature is going to try.

Last week, the House Rural Development Council, a creature ordered up by Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, issued its recipe of fixes for rural Georgia. When state lawmakers convene in Atlanta next month, the extension of broadband access to neglected corners of the state will top that to-do list.

But the most intriguing solution, admittedly lacking details, is a program to repopulate rural Georgia. The “Rural Relocate and Reside” program would offer one-time, 10-year state income tax deductions of up to $50,000 to new residents of certain counties.

If a county wants to snag a particular individual or group, and obtains approval through referendum for an accompanying property tax abatement, the state would be willing to up that 10-year income tax deduction to $100,000.

Right now, 124 of Georgia’s 159 counties are targeted. All have experienced less than five percent growth over the last five years.

Speaker Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other state Capitol leaders – Democrats as well as Republican – have focused more on Internet access in rural Georgia. They consider it a fundamental necessity when it comes to providing health care and giving public school classrooms access to well-trained teachers.

The proposal to repopulate rural Georgia has a subtler aim. Attracting high-earners who can spur economic growth is only one concern.

“One of the things we consistently heard was the concern that, as time goes on, their best and brightest were leaving to go to college, leaving town to go to wherever — whether it be Atlanta or Athens. They were not coming back home,” said state Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, who is co-chair of the rural council and also chairman of the House appropriations committee.

Pools of civil leadership – future mayors, county commissioners, school board members and such – are drying up, England said. Civic competency, not just economic clout, is draining away.

It would be hard to overstate the larger problem.

Only 11 rural counties in Georgia have a larger population now than in 1860, when cotton and slavery dominated the economy. Thirty-six Georgia counties now have death rates higher than their birth rates. All are in rural Georgia, according to statistics compiled by the rural development council.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a report last month that connected shrinking population with poverty in the nation's rural spaces. Over 300 counties were rated "persistently poor." Eighty-five percent of them are in the South.

Gov. Nathan Deal regularly touts his entire state as a stellar place to do business. In fact, while Georgia’s population has doubled over two generations, two-thirds of the growth has been concentrated in seven counties that make up metro Atlanta or Savannah.

In an economic development climate that has become more and more technology-based, relocating companies go where the millennial talent lives, works – and often prefers commuter rail.

Which means the challenge for rural Georgia is likely to get harder, not easier.

During his eight years in office, Gov. Sonny Perdue – now secretary of agriculture in the Trump administration — persuaded lawmakers to cut and eventually eliminate the state income tax on retirement income.

The idea was to attract out-of-staters who were looking for a laid-back, rural lifestyle. But older people require more health care access – not less. And Georgia’s rural hospital system is in the midst of a slow collapse.

England said the current Georgia repopulation idea would target young professionals and is partially based on a program already underway in Kansas, where those who move in from out of state can receive an income tax credit for up to five years in “rural opportunity zones.”

Georgia’s program would be open to current residents of the state. Which raises an important question: How do you draw up legislation that would benefit a small group of people, or even a single individual – a particular brand of physician a community requires, for instance. An obstetrician, perhaps.

“It would have to be fairly narrowly drawn. We’re going to have to be very careful so it’s not abused,” England said. Poachers who might move from county to county, claiming rewards, would have to be excluded.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal. You’re going to get this once. You’re not going to get it a second time. So you’re not going to be able to milk the system,” he said.

There are some who think the situation is something of a time bomb. Rural Georgia once ran the state Legislature, but its clout diminishes with each census. The next one is in 2020.

When district lines are adjusted for population, the General Assembly’s rural caucus will decline by three to five House members, and two to three senators, England estimated. “The next one after that is going to be just as bad, if not a little worse.”

But the loss of bargaining power worries the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee less now than it did a dozen years ago.

It’s not as if rural bargaining power will disappear.

England would not connect the two, but saving rural Georgia is one of two House initiatives that will receive much attention next year. Another Ralston-initiative: A House commission to determine the state’s role in the expansion of mass transit in metro Atlanta.

It could be hard to pass one without the other.

But there’s no quid pro quo contemplated, England said. “I don’t see it as a trade-off. These things are right for Georgia as a whole. We’re all in this together.”