Arial view of the city of Cuthbert in Randolph County on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Lawmakers resume work on bills to help struggling rural Georgia

Some of Georgia’s most powerful lawmakers are renewing their efforts to revive rural communities, a push that so far has resulted in incremental steps toward internet access, health care and business growth.

Though many small-town Georgians may not have seen much of a difference, members of the Georgia House of Representatives plan to continue their work to turn around economic stagnation, hospital closings and population losses in rural parts of the state.

The House Rural Development Council recently restarted its work for at least two more years, crafting legislation to support sparsely populated areas.

The boldest bills proposed by the council during its first two years haven’t passed, including measures to fund internet constructionexpand rural transit and give tax incentives to professionals to move to rural towns.

Other bills have become law, allowing local electricity cooperatives to sell online servicespermitting small hospitals that aren’t required to provide a broad array of treatments, and giving tax credits for short-line railroads and wood construction.

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.”

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