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Rural Georgia’s plight gets attention — and a champion

So many topics that hold legislators’ attention are evergreens: education, transportation, health care, taxes. This year there is one new refrain — or at least, a new tune to which those familiar lyrics have been set.

The plight of rural Georgia is being discussed under the Gold Dome in a way unlike the past several years. Rural hospitals’ struggles are well-known, but there’s growing acknowledgment they are part of a bigger failing in the parts of Georgia where it’s easy to see the stars at night but too hard to find a good job by day.

“I grew up in rural Georgia, I still live in rural Georgia, but I get to go all over Georgia,” House Speaker David Ralston told me in a recent interview. “And I’m an optimist. So I started noticing that if I gave a speech here (in Atlanta), and talked about economic development and job growth, I could look out and see people excited, and applauding, and sort of affirming what I was talking about. They really could get, you know, 500,000-plus new jobs (statewide since 2010).

“Then I noticed, as I would go around the state … I’d get up and give that rah-rah (speech), but they’re kind of looking with this blank stare. Like, ‘That’s nice, but’— and I thought, you know, that’s because it’s not happening all over the state.”

This past week Ralston unveiled a new initiative to address the geographic gap. It’ll be chaired by Reps. Jay Powell and Terry England — the House’s point men on taxes and spending, respectively — and tasked with making recommendations this year and next.

“I want them to go to these communities … to ask people, what can we do?” Ralston said. Some possibilities: new or tweaked tax incentives, maybe to attract doctors and other professionals to rural towns, and better access to technical colleges, a big part of Georgia’s job-creation efforts.

As for rural health care, Ralston, who hails from north Georgia, cited an example from his district. “In Ellijay, we had the hospital closure there late last spring,” he said. “But it’s coming back now, as what I have called a micro-hospital. Because you know, every small town doesn’t need a 30-, 40-, 50-bed hospital if you can have eight or 10 beds, and an emergency room. But I think health care, and having access to that, is vital to jobs.”

Here, he offered a clarification: “I’m not looking for government to create one job here. This is not about government creating jobs … but it can create an environment for the private sector to grow jobs, and let’s let that mean something for the entire state.”

I asked Ralston what he would say to anyone in metro Atlanta who might question his emphasis on a shrinking part of the state’s population.

“Who’s going to tend the farms? Who’s going to do the timber production? Who’s going to do mining? Who’s going to grow fruits? I mean, you can’t do these things in Inman Park, as much as I love Inman Park.

“What I would say to them is that we are so blessed in Georgia to have just a dynamic, great city here, with all its neighborhoods – and I enjoy them, frankly. But we’re really interdependent. … We need to let that geographic and demographic diversity be a blessing, not something that we kick away.”

Having raised some of these questions a few months ago, I’m interested to see where this new initiative leads. Let me repeat something I wrote then: Someone who understands how and why to pull different levers to boost rural Georgia than those for Atlanta and other metros would be a compelling candidate for governor.

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