ATLANTA – Lawmakers just wrapped up another session where rural Georgia’s economic woes loomed large, with many bills being cast – some more convincingly than others – as a lift for the state’s small towns.
One measure pitched horse racing as a rural jobs bill. Another proposed requiring tech companies to disclose repair information for phones and other gadgets as a way to put more people to work across the state. And another would ban local home design laws as a way to protect workforce housing.
None of those passed this year.
But several rural-focused bills are now sitting on the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp, even though the 2019 legislative session will likely be remembered more for a controversial measure that seeks to severely curtail abortion in Georgia or a sweeping voting bill that will affect how Georgians exercise their right to vote for years to come.
This was at least the third consecutive year where legislators pushed fixes aimed at spurring job growth in the state’s rural corners, where economic recovery has lagged behind metro Atlanta and other urban areas.
The measure that is widely expected to have the most impact on rural communities is one that has been in the works for at least three years.
Lawmakers passed a bill that gives Georgia’s electric cooperatives – which already have a long-established presence in rural communities – the authority to sell high-speed internet. Non-profit telephone co-ops will also be able to do the same.
A couple co-ops in north Georgia are already providing broadband, but others have been hesitant to wade into the internet business without legislators officially blessing it in state code.
It’s too early to know yet just how many of the state’s 41 co-ops will eventually sell the service, or at least partner with others to sell it. It’s also unclear just how many people in the state’s hard-to-reach communities they will be able to connect.
It may take time. Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla, who carried the bill in the House, said he believes customer demand may drive reluctant cooperatives into the broadband business, as will seeing other co-ops sell the service.
“I think pressure from consumers and seeing other folks do it and do it successfully will make a big difference,” said Powell, who co-chairs the influential House Rural Development Council, which legislators voted this session to continue for another two years.
But for many people, the bill at least represents the possibility of a new provider – and one that functions as a nonprofit – helping to boost connections for the estimated 1.6 million Georgia residents who live without adequate access.
“That’s giving people a lot of hope,” said Rep. Sam Watson, a Republican from Moultrie who is the rural House panel’s vice chair.
Another bill that stalled would have raised money for rural broadband expansion by taxing digital goods and streaming services while lowering existing fees on traditional services, such as telephone and cable.
“I think the politics got in the way,” said Powell, who also chairs the powerful House Rules Committee. “The news media portrayed it as a ‘Netflix tax,’ which I think was couched to see how much public opposition they could generate.”
For two years now, Powell has pushed a communications service tax as a way to also modernize the state’s tax code. As an example, he noted that people pay a tax on a DVD but not on a digital movie watched online.
“Whether you are going to use the proceeds to fund rural broadband or not, it is a good tax policy,” he added.
Rural state representatives stepped into the Gold Dome three months ago with a plan to overhaul the state’s system for regulating health care, only to leave this month after making just a few modest but significant changes.
But they did succeed in passing what some consider the most important aspect of the sweeping health care proposal: Stronger transparency requirements.
“The best way to cure an infection is sunshine,” said Rep. Penny Houston, a Republican from Nashville who was instrumental in pushing through the health care bills.
“The transparency is not just for rural Georgia but it’s to help health care all over,” she added. “Georgia has some of the most expensive health care in the nation, and the cost of health care needs to come down.”
If signed into law, nonprofit hospitals will have to post vastly more financial information on their websites, including the salary and fringe benefits of their highest-paid staffers, a list of the properties owned and any stake a hospital may have in other enterprises.
“Hopefully, we’re going to maybe learn some good things and we might learn some bad things,” Watson said. “But at the end of the day, we’re going to find out what our problems are and what things are working and what’s not working.
“If you don’t know what all the problems are, it’s hard to fix them,” he said.
Watson said lawmakers have been troubled by talk of money parked in offshore accounts and medical use rights, which some hospitals have used to control nearby property and ward off competition. A proposal sitting on Kemp’s desk would ban the latter practice.
About $10,000 was also added to the budget to pay an outside consultant to study what nonprofit hospitals pay their executives and lobbyists.
The hospital industry has been leery of changes to the certificate-of-need program, which dictates how many health care facilities can exist in an area as a way of trying to control costs.
The program is often seen as a vital protection for rural hospitals, which fear losing the profitable services that help offset their losses. But critics argue that the outdated program has turned some hospitals into monopolies, squashing the competition that could help keep health care costs in check for consumers.
Many legislators were wary of changing the program.
“We cannot put these hospitals out here and demand that they treat anybody who walks in whether they can pay or not and then compete with some of these clinics that only take folks with insurance,” said Sen. Ellis Black, a Republican from Valdosta, who ultimately supported scaled-back changes.
“You’ve got to maintain a level playing field to some degree,” he said.
If the bill is signed, a hospital or another facility would be able to spend more on improvements before having to go through the often expensive and time-consuming certificate-of-need process.
For example, a hospital could spend up to $10 million on a construction project or equipment without having to go the state for approval. Today, it only takes a $2.5 million project to trigger the process.
And a rival health care facility would have to be within 35 miles of another facility to be able to raise an objection to a competitor’s proposed expanded or new service offering. Right now, any facility in the state can challenge another group’s plans.
“We’ve had CON all these years and it has not worked for rural hospitals,” Houston said. “They’ve closed. So we’ve got to try something different. This hasn’t kept them open.”
Lawmakers also tightened up the rules for a popular tax credit program in an effort to ensure the money goes to the hospitals that truly have the greatest need. The program gives donors a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for giving money to cash-strapped small-town hospitals.
The bill did not, however, raise the limit on how much state money can go toward the tax credits. The cap remains at $60 million.
And a separate measure allows the governor to pursue a pair of waivers from the federal government, including one that could partially expand Medicaid. It remains to be seen, though, what impact this will have across the state.
There are also a slew of lower-profile bills and line items in the budget that took aim at rural Georgia’s struggles.
One measure that passed with little fanfare would make it easier for employers to cash in on a tax credit program – if they set up shop in some of the poorest rural counties in Georgia.
Companies could reap the benefit for bringing as few as 10 new decent-paying jobs in the smallest, most impoverished communities. Right now, the bar is set at 50 jobs.
“That’s a realization that 10 jobs in rural Georgia is the equivalent of 100, 150 in the metro region, as far as overall economic impact that it has in a small community,” said Rep. Terry England, a Republican from Auburn who heads the House’s budget-writing committee and who is the other council’s co-chair.
Lawmakers also included $300,000 in this year’s budget to target blight through small grants for communities with just 2,500 residents. The program allows local communities to do things such as rent a dumpster and let residents fill it up with the old washing machines, couches and other rubbish that may be junking up yards.
“I think it will be a good little thing to help put a better face on those small communities when somebody does come in to look at them to think about moving a company there,” England said.
Another measure that was touted as a potential rural boon was one allowing for the cultivation of hemp in Georgia. Lawmakers hope the new-to-Georgia crop will create jobs in agricultural communities.
“No one takes back roads through rural Georgia anymore,” said Rep. Rick Williams, a Republican from Milledgeville. “If you’re not on the main thoroughfare, you lose people coming through. There’s nothing drawing them there. You’ve got to do something to help the economy.”
Other ideas didn’t fare as well this year.
A proposal that was pitched as a rural transit bill stalled in the Senate. The bill would have created pilot programs to transport unemployed residents to work. It would have also consolidated some state functions under a new agency and allowed counties to pass a sales tax to fund their own transit projects.
A plan to give farmers a tax break on any federal disaster payments they receive for Hurricane Michael – should Congress ever approve the aid – also ran out of steam in the Senate.
And a controversial measure that sought to bolster the state’s “right to farm” law in the wake of costly lawsuits against the pork industry in North Carolina ran into concerns that the changes would protect the state’s prized agricultural industry at the expense of other people’s private property rights.
These bills remain alive for next January, when lawmakers return for the new session.
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.