Meanwhile, more than one-third of Georgia's small towns lost population over the past year, while the state's largest cities have grown even larger, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
"These things don't change overnight," said state House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla who served as the Rural Development Council's co-chairman over the past two years. "Have we seen a change? No. Are we going to see a change? Yes. We need to keep at it with these incremental changes we've started."
The council, made up of 21 state representatives, will meet in towns across the state until the end of the year, then issue recommendations for legislation to be considered by the Georgia General Assembly in 2020.
Legislators will focus on internet expansion, transportation, agriculture, health care, workforce development and economic growth, said state Rep. Sam Watson, a Republican from Moultrie and an incoming co-chairman of the council.
“Prior to the Rural Development Council, we weren’t even talking a lot about these issues,” Watson said. “Now they’re at the forefront. Every piece of legislation we try to pass, it has some rural incentive in it.”
Across the country, several states have emphasized the needs of rural areas, recognizing that manufacturing industries have declined in recent decades because of the North American Free Trade Agreement and automation of farming jobs, said Doug Farquhar, the program director for agriculture and rural development for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The challenges facing rural communities might seem intractable, but they can be eased through long-term planning and consistent legislation, Farquhar said.
“It’s not a single problem. It’s many problems,” Farquhar said. “Legislation isn’t designed to solve all the problems. It’s designed to make it better.”
One of the first bills to pass last year created the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, a government organization that helps businesses find growth opportunities and conducts research. It opened in Tifton in August with three staff members and a $1.7 million annual budget.
The organization’s work includes an economic impact analysis for a poultry company’s relocation, a study of tax credits for redevelopment of historic buildings in rural communities, and grant and loan assistance for businesses.
“Because of the perceived decline in business opportunities, poor school systems and inaccess to health care, the younger generation doesn’t want to move to rural communities,” said David Bridges, the center’s interim director. “Those are not things we’re going to fix overnight, but I think we’re having some success.”
Rural bills 2019
- Allowing electric membership corporations to sell high-speed internet service as well as power.
- Permitting phone companies to sell high-speed internet service.
- Expansion of a tax credit program for companies that hire at least 10 employees. The program previously limited the benefit to 50 new jobs.
- Funding for public transit in rural areas.
- A tax on video streaming and digital products to fund internet construction.
- An increase of the $60 million tax credit for rural hospitals.