Rural Development Council presents report
The Georgia House Rural Development Council (RDC), which since May has studied a variety of issues in rural areas of the state, has submitted its recommendations.
The council, established by House Resolution 389 during the 2017 Georgia legislative session, proposed steps to enhance the general workforce, improve access to broadband internet access, accelerate economic development, improve educational programs and tackle persistent health issues in rural Georgia.
According to the report, which is available online at http://bit.ly/17RDCreport, rural areas are losing people to urban and suburban areas. For example, 36 Georgia counties have a higher death rate than birth rate; all of them are rural counties. Population in half the state’s counties has declined since 2000, and only 11 of Georgia’s rural counties have a larger population in 2017 than they had in 1860.
House Speaker David Ralston charged the RDC with finding solutions to problems in these sectors, noting that the state’s economic success has been the result of highly coordinated, deliberate effort and that it “must now amplify its reach to all portions of this state regardless of ZIP code.
Among the recommendations, the RDC proposed a set of incentives to entice people to move into rural areas, including income tax and property tax breaks, with the goal of increasing population and by extension increasing availability of local workers in rural areas.
Because people equate internet access with opportunities to earn a living and improve quality of life, and because internet access is a key component of all other issues challenging rural Georgia, the RCD proposed a plan to build out telecommunications infrastructure to accommodate broadband access in rural areas, in which the cost of installing transmission lines is a barrier to many telecom companies. The RCD, co-chaired by Reps. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) and Terry England (R-Auburn) proposed legislative action to enable a state relationship with Electric Membership Cooperatives while providing incentives to communications companies to expand into unserved or underserved areas.
The RDC recommended pooling of resources on a regional basis to facilitate economic development through workforce expansion, training, marketing and health care. This included the establishment of a Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovations by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, providing a central information and research hub for rural leadership training.
During its series of 18 hearings, the RDC repeatedly heard complaints that educational systems cannot respond quickly to needs for industry programming because of lack of flexibility or leadership. On top of that, students who leave rural communities for post-secondary education often do not return. The commission recommended providing opportunities that allow rural students to stay in place.
The report indicates there are six Georgia counties with no physician, 63 without a pediatrician, 66 without a general surgeon and 79 without an OB-GYN. Several factors threaten the financial stability of rural hospitals, the report shows. The commission identified a series of best practices to improve healthcare through telehealth and mechanisms to ensure access to acute care.
The legislature will have the option to consider these recommendations during its 2018 session, and the RDC will continue its work through the end of 2018.