For a few days there I thought we had a major story brewing down in Pierce County.
Leaders of the Republican Party in that deep South Georgia community had included a question on Tuesday’s party primary ballot asking whether the “counties South of Macon (should) join together to form the 51st state of South Georgia.”
Going into Tuesday’s election, I would have bet a cup of coffee it had a fair chance of passing. I have spent a good bit of time in South Georgia over the years and folks down there can be a provincial lot. Many don’t much care for Atlanta.
But in a perhaps surprising display of common sense, Pierce County’s Republicans voted better than two-to-one not to break away from North Georgia and Metro Atlanta. The final tally was 703 ayes to 1,844 nays.
On a personal level, I’ll confess to a certain amount of disappointment a new State of South Georgia is now apparently off the table.
It probably would have moved my home state of Mississippi up in the national rankings overnight.
In one fell swoop, it would almost certainly have created the poorest, sickest and least educated state in the union. Folks in Mississippi (and for that matter Alabama) would have been able to look forward to saying “thank God for South Georgia” when all the new national education and economic rankings come out each year.
Alas, I guess that’s not to be.
More seriously, the Pierce County initiative, unsuccessful though it was, does beg a serious discussion about the relationship between South Georgia (and, more generally, rural Georgia) and Metro Atlanta in particular – especially given the way the head of the Pierce County Republican Party, Kay Godwin, framed the issue going into Tuesday’s election.
“We don’t get anything from Atlanta,” she told The Blackshear Times. “This is an effort to force them to pay attention to us. We are not going to secede, but I hope it passes so maybe it will produce action across the state.”
As the talking heads on cable news like to say, there’s a lot there to unpack. I’ve emailed Ms. Godwin and asked her to expand on her comments, but at this writing I have not heard back from her.
Let’s start with “we don’t get anything from Atlanta.”
The reality, probably not fully appreciated in any region of the state, is that Metro Atlanta has been subsidizing the rest of the state — and South Georgia in particular — for decades.
The Fiscal Research Center at Georgia State University took a mind-numbingly deep dive into this issue nearly a decade ago and found, basically, that as of 2004 (the most recent year for which the author could get comprehensive data) the 10 core Metro Atlanta counties generated 51 percent of state government revenues and consumed only 37 percent of the state’s expenditures, leaving the rest for the other 149 counties.
That’s very much in line with my own Trouble in God’s Country (TIGC) research. Working with federal IRS data that’s available online, I found that in 2013 the 12 counties I classify as Metro Atlanta incurred right at two-thirds of the state’s federal tax liability — $20.4 billion versus $10.6 billion for the other 147 counties – while consuming, to cite just one example, only about a third of the state’s Medicaid expenses. And that was with less than half the population: 4.65 million people in Metro Atlanta versus 5.34 million in the other 147 counties.
Let’s narrow that focus to South Georgia. Working with that same 2013 data, we find that the 56 counties that make up my TIGC South Georgia region incurred about $1.7 billion in 2013 federal income tax liability, or about 5.5 percent of the state’s total. At the same time, it consumed about 17.2 percent of the state’s Medicaid benefits. The level of subsidy implied by these numbers should cause local leaders to pause before they start complaining about Atlanta not doing anything for them.
Truth is, South Georgia (and for that matter most of rural Georgia) is in a world of hurt. In some respects these areas are literally dying, and the breadth and scope of the problems afflicting just about everything from the gnat line south demand some sort of comprehensive solution.
I’ve touched on economics in this piece, but I could make parallel cases using educational and healthcare data.
South Georgia is the least educated and least healthy region of the state, and those facts translate into both an inability to support itself and a dependency on public support for Medicaid and other services.
Atlanta will have to be involved — both in the form of state-driven remedies and as a source of necessary funding. The longer the problems go untended, the bigger — and more expensive — they will become.
The real problem for Ms. Godwin and South Georgia is that these societal and fiscal problems are coming to a head just as their worst political nightmares are also coming true.
For all of Georgia’s history — up until right about now — rural Georgia ruled the political roost. Rural areas generally were smart enough to elect wily young politicians to the legislature and leave them in place to hold Atlanta at bay.
But that’s changing.
By my count, just under half of the current House and Senate districts lie partly or wholly within my TIGC 12-county Metro Atlanta. With the next census and reapportionment, political power will concentrate even further in Metro Atlanta, probably giving it a majority of the legislature.
South Georgia can forget about ever again electing a governor.
What this means is that the political powers who will soon hold virtually all the purse strings may soon be asking why they should be diverting tax dollars generated in Metro Atlanta —which has its own problems — to South Georgia.
Given that reality, South Georgia probably needs a better strategy than demanding “action” and “attention” by threatening to secede.
Who knows? We might take you up on it.
© Trouble in God’s Country 2018