Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Governor Brian Kemp’

Moving the All-Star game punished the wrong Georgia

President Biden and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred apparently never got the memo about the Two Georgias.

That’s about the only conclusion to be drawn from their reaction to the enactment of Georgia Senate Bill 202, aka “The Election Integrity Act of 2021.” When Biden publicly urged the MLB to strip Atlanta of this year’s MLB All-Star game, he was basically calling in friendly fire on his own party’s home turf in perhaps the most politically important state in the nation right now.

More specifically, he targeted Cobb County, home of the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park and designated site of the 2021 All-Star game. Long a bastion of GOP strength, Cobb County finally tipped Democratic in 2016 and then gave Biden a 56,000-vote margin in 2020. Kudos to the political wizards who helped him think that one through.

Georgia has been undergoing an almost biological cellular division for nearly a half-century now. With every passing year, Metro Atlanta and the rest of the state have drifted further and further apart in just about every measurable way — including economics, educational attainment and population health.

And politics. The earliest sightings of Republicans in modern Georgia took place in metropolitan Atlanta about 50 years ago. They clawed their way to prominence and ultimately dominance at county courthouses in fast-growing suburban Atlanta counties and then began to infiltrate the state legislature.

Since then, Democrats have reasserted control at most Atlanta-area county governments, but Republicans have invaded and now all but own rural Georgia — and the State Capitol. It plainly escaped the attention of the White House and the MLB that the sponsors of S.B. 202 hail not from Atlanta, Decatur, Lawrenceville or Marietta, but from such far-flung rural climes as Sylvania, Danielsville, Cataula, Chickamauga, Perry, Ocilla and Vidalia.

If economic punishment was the goal, a better strategy might have been to rattle some budgetary sabers at, for example, Augusta’s Fort Gordon, which sits next door to the Senate District represented by Senator Max Burns (R-Sylvania), who chairs the Senate Ethics Committee that produced the final version of S.B. 202 and is listed as its No. 1 sponsor, as well as other South Georgia military installations and federal facilities.

If, instead, the objective was political humiliation, you’d think they might have noticed that Burns’s sprawling, largely-rural east-Georgia district also sweeps into Augusta and brackets a certain well-tended golf course that will be ground zero for the sports media for the next several days.

Not for nothing, the 2021 Master’s Tournament, as it does every Covid-free year, will double as a post-legislative party scene for lobbyists and lawmakers and an entertainment venue for the state’s well-heeled corporate leaders, who will no doubt have to spend some of their time trying to convince their out-of-state customers and prospects that the state is not actually run by knuckle-dragging racists.

It may be a tough sell. A betting man might wager that Stacey Abrams and her minions will find their way to the gates of Augusta National in time to make the evening news. And that the estimable U.S. Representative James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) will cross the Savannah River to lend a hand. Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper can probably be expected to set up live shots at the Amen Corner.

For what it’s worth, my reading of the bill and various analyses is that there’s a fair argument to be made that the legislation is not quite as horrific as first thought. As an example, Democrats complained mightily that the legislation will greatly restrict ballot drop boxes used in the last election for absentee ballot applications and actual ballots. But drop boxes didn’t exist at all prior to the last election cycle; Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger used the emergency powers of his office to authorize them during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, at least, the use of a limited number of such boxes (to be located inside government buildings and available during business hours) is codified into state law.

Another relatively innocuous change cuts the window prior to elections for applying for absentee ballots from six months to, for some odd reason, 78 days. That strikes me as plenty of time to apply for an absentee ballot — although responding to a flood of requests in a shorter window of time could stress elections offices in big counties — which, frankly, might help give the state the excuse it needs to exercise a new power it just gave itself to step in and fire local elections superintendents.

Beyond that, S.B. 202 really is pretty horrific. It’s difficult to read it and avoid a judgment that it will make voting harder in large urban Democratic counties, especially in minority precincts, and easier in mostly Republican rural counties. (This subject deserves a screed of its own, which I’ll try to get to later; in the meantime, a good analysis appears in today’s New York Times.)

But even if the final version of S.B. 202 was totally benign, motive and intent matter. Stampeded following the 2020 election by a zombie-like army of Trump-enthralled rural voters convinced that their own party’s leaders had stolen the election for Biden, Republican legislators began drafting bills that stopped just short of requiring DNA tests to get an absentee ballot. Early versions of the legislation were so repellant that the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, proclaimed himself “disgusted” and refused to preside over the State Senate’s consideration of the bill, and four GOP senators found a way to avoid voting on that version of the bill.

Optics matter too. The provision outlawing giving food and water to voters stuck in long voting lines — as minority voters in urban areas often are — was amazingly bone-headed. So was Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to sign the bill behind closed doors while flanked by White legislators and sitting under a painting of a plantation — and then, for God’s sake, to put out an official photograph of the historic event.

Add to this that while Kemp was signing the bill into law, a Black female state legislator who’d had the temerity to knock on the governor’s door was being put in handcuffs, arrested and hauled away by a pair of well-fed state troopers — in full view of multiple video cameras and cellphones.

At that point, any substantive case that might — might — have been made for the law was a lost cause. “Georgia G.O.P. Passes Major Law to Limit Voting Amid Nationwide Push,” thundered The New York Times. From The Washington Post: “As Georgia’s new law shows, when Black people gain local power, states strip that power away.”

Enter now the White House and Major League Baseball, and recognize that the laws of physics also apply to politics: for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Put another way, if Republicans do something stupid, they can count on the Democrats to do something just as stupid right back.

Thus did Biden and the MLB lurch into ready/fire/aim mode and deprive businesses and employees in an increasingly Democratic part of the state of, according to a Cobb Travel and Tourism executive, more than $100 million in projected cash flow.

Clearly, one of the Two Georgias deserved all this economic pain, radioactive headlines and political opprobrium — but it wasn’t Metro Atlanta or Cobb County. Now, though, the problem isn’t just that Atlanta is paying an economic price for rural Georgia’s retrograde politics, it’s that there’s almost certainly more to come.

As AJC sports columnist Steve Hummer put it this weekend, “The loss of baseball’s All-Star game was just the beginning. Why, with a little more work from those beneath the Gold Dome, we can become Birmingham before you know it.”

“Why,” he added a few paragraphs later, “would any major sporting league – or major company for that matter – want to have anything to do with a leadership that so eagerly gives credence to a bald-faced lie?”

Here he makes an important point. The Georgia General Assembly adjourned last week after devoting much of its legislative energy to producing a 98-page law based spawned entirely by President Trump’s fictitious claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

One byproduct of that legislative disaster is that it spawned a political virus for which there is no obvious vaccine — and no way of knowing where or how it might spread. Aside from the economic development implications, it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder whether the 5-star Black athletes now dressing out for Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs might begin to think twice about playing football in a state where the Legislature apparently wants to hinder their right to vote.

If, for instance, running back Zamir “Zeus” White and wide receiver Georgia Pickens were to even glance in the direction of the transfer portal because of the new law, let’s just say that the likely opposite reaction would be very unequal — and would require Governor Kemp to build a bigger fence around the State Capitol to hold the UGA alumni association at bay.

If the recent presidential and Senate elections marked tipping points in Georgia politics, the enactment of S.B. 202 may prove to be an even more important inflection point in the long-running political war between Metro Atlanta and rural Georgia. My hunch as well is that one opposite and equal reaction to S.B. 202 is that voter outrage in Metro Atlanta will remain at a boiling point through the 2022 election cycle. Bad press for depriving voters standing in long lines of food and water may prove to be the least of the Republicans’ problems.

In the Two Georgias, a big, mega-million dollar hit on Metro Atlanta and Cobb County is a small price for Senator Burns and his colleagues to pay to calm the Trump-inflamed fever swamps they represent.

In fact, it’s no price at all. Which is the problem. Burns’s hometown of Sylvania is more than 200 miles from Truist Park, and most of his fellow GOP colleagues live at least 100 miles from the ballpark.

At the risk of being uncharitable, I can’t help but wonder if some of these legislators — and their constituents — aren’t laughing up their sleeves (if not out loud) at Metro Atlanta’s misfortune. For them, S.B. 202 was a two-fer. Not only did they weaken the region politically, they nicked it for tens of millions of dollars in business in the process.

I’ll close by suggesting that this need not be the end of the opening chapter of this story. Georgia’s newly-empowered Democrats in Washington — led by Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock — should make this case to the White House and Major League Baseball and implore them to reverse the All-Star game decision. It may not be too late, and a reversal would undo a major mistake and set the stage for a discussion about how to exact economic retribution on those who actually deserve it.

(c) Copyright Trouble in God’s Country 2021

The making of a political earthquake that tipped the U.S. Senate

If football is a game of inches, politics is one of fractions — a glacial shift in demographics, incremental growth in voter registration, tiny changes in voter turnout.

In isolation, individual events like these may seem small and insignificant. In combination, they are like the grinding of tectonic plates that can remake an entire landscape.

That’s what’s been happening in Georgia for the past decade. The first big tremor finally hit on November 3, when the state sided with a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992. An even bigger shaker hit last Tuesday, January 5, when Georgians deposed incumbent Republican senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue and replaced them not just with Democrats, but with the Black pastor of Martin Luther King’s church and a 33-year-old Jewish television documentary producer. Neither had held office before.

But it’s the aftershocks that are already rippling across the state that will reshape Georgia’s politics for generations to come. They will also spell an end to rural dominance at the State Capitol, although the death throes may go on for several years.

The dust hasn’t even settled on Tuesday’s Senate runoffs and the state’s political sights are already being leveled at 2022 and the next round of races for the state’s constitutional offices, including one of the two U.S. Senate seats, governor, lieutenant governor and — perhaps most notably — secretary of state.

Brad Raffensperger, the Republican incumbent secretary of state, is almost certainly being considered for a John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award, but right now he can’t leave home without a bodyguard. Now halfway through his first term, Raffensperger was a low-profile state legislator before throwing his hat in the ring for secretary of state; then, having an (R) after his name was enough to allow him to squeak past John Barrow, a former Democratic congressman, in a runoff.

Now, his insistence on actually counting Georgia’s presidential and senatorial votes — and his temerity in standing up to direct pressure from President Trump — may have doomed him politically. The current political firestorm may pass, but right now it’s difficult to see how he survives a credible GOP primary challenge, which he will almost certainly draw.

And then there’s the governor’s race. The Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, is in little better shape than Raffensperger.  Kemp was already saddled with horrific Covid-19 numbers when the presidential election blew up in his face.  Long accustomed to easy walks in the park in presidential elections, Georgia Republicans were plainly caught off guard when, very late in the race, the Peach State suddenly started showing up on national battleground radars.

Kemp was placed in the exquisitely difficult position of having to tell the president — to whom he quite literally owes his election — that any effort to have the Georgia General Assembly overturn the state’s election results would be doomed to failure.  Trump is now promoting the likely gubernatorial candidacy of former U.S. Representative Doug Collins, the frenetic Gainesville Republican who defended Trump during the House impeachment fight.

Whoever survives that death cage match will probably face Stacey Abrams in the 2022 General Election. The architect and field general of the Democratic Party’s rebirth in Georgia, Abrams might yet be recruited to some high-profile position in Joe Biden’s Washington, but the smart money is that she’s hanging around for another run at the governor’s office, which she very narrowly lost to Kemp in a runoff two years ago.

Runoffs have, indeed, become a thing in Georgia. They were put into place by the state legislature more than a half-century ago after a U.S. Supreme Court “one man/one vote” decision drove a stake through the heart of Georgia’s infamous county-unit system. Runoffs became the new rural bulwark against Atlanta’s growing (Black) population and rising (Black) political power — and they worked until they didn’t.

Which brings us back to fractions (and, increasingly, whole numbers).  Population growth and demographic shifts may have favored the Democrats in recent years, but Republicans have stayed in the game by outhustling them at the polls.  In the 2018 governor’s race, the 29 mostly urban and suburban counties that sided with Abrams were home to well over half-a-million more registered voters than the 130 largely rural counties that went for Kemp.  But the voter turnout in the Kemp counties was 61.5 percent versus an even 60 percent in the Abrams counties; that edge, and the Republicans’ continuing hold on at least a portion of the suburban vote, enabled Kemp to squeak by.

In the 2020 General Election – with Trump at the top of the ticket – Republicans actually grew their turnout advantage.  The Republican counties turned out 68.8 percent of their voters to 65.3 percent for the Democratic counties – a plump, 3.5-point advantage – and Perdue built a daunting 100,000-vote lead to take into the runoff.  Even though Loeffler trailed Warnock in the 20-candidate “jungle primary” for the other Senate seat, she was presumed to have a similar advantage going into the runoff.

But without Trump on the ballot – and with his regular assaults on Kemp, Raffensperger and the reliability of Georgia’s elections system – the GOP turnout advantage fell to about 1.2 percentage points.  At the same time, based on data available from the Secretary of State’s office, the Democratic-voting counties fattened their already big lead in the total number of registered voters by more than 150,000, and the political algebra simply became overwhelming.

As did the voting options.  In the early in-person and mail voting, Ossoff and Warnock ran up 400,000-plus vote margins that Perdue and Loeffler couldn’t erase with strong election day showings.  In the end, Ossoff won by 51,150 votes and Warnock by 89,404.  Both margins were outside the recount margins and big enough that both Perdue and Loeffler threw in their respective towels, thereby depriving the state’s barristers of another marathon round of post-election litigation.

Those margins may, of course, exaggerate the state of play in Georgia politics, but it’s difficult to find much good news for the state’s Republicans in these latest results.  They did have some down-ballot victories, but all in all this year’s extended political season brought the urban-rural divide into starker relief.

For the GOP, Metro Atlanta was basically reduced to fly-over country.  Trump’s three rallies on behalf of Perdue and Loeffler were held in Valdosta, Macon and finally Dalton (where, incidentally, the local 14-day Covid-19 case rate was more than six times the number required to make the Trump White House Coronavirus Task Force’s red zone list).  For his part, Vice President Pence made a final campaign swing, on January 4, through Milner, Ga. (pop. 654).  Suffice to say, neither Milner nor Dalton quite got the job done. 

The general election and runoff results almost certainly presage a period of Republican-on-Republican political violence that will extend through the current regular session of the Georgia General Assembly and a special reapportionment session later this year, when any remaining survivors will convene to draw new legislative district lines.  Further GOP collateral damage seems certain, especially in South Georgia.

At this point, the Georgia Republican Party’s options appear limited.  A state party official’s apparently serious 2019 suggestion  that Republicans use what he called a “fertility advantage” to outbreed Democrats has yet to yield much known success.  In the wake of last Tuesday’s Senate runoffs, the only known GOP policy response has not been to propose legislation addressing their districts’ economic, educational or healthcare needs, but, as the AJC reported last week, to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, ballot drop boxes and unsolicited absentee ballot application mailings. 

© Trouble in God’s Country 2021

A tale of two regions: the Old South and the West Coast tackle COVID-19

It’s probably a little early for this kind of analysis, but our nation’s every-state-for-itself approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is already generating some interesting contrasts between different states and even regions of the country.

I’ve been following the differences between Georgia and North Carolina, neighboring southeastern states with nearly identical populations but very different COVID-19 results.  North Carolina continues to have substantially fewer confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths — despite performing a great many more tests than Georgia. The principal difference between the two states appears to be political: North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, acted earlier and more decisively to begin closing down his state than his Republican counterpart, Brian Kemp, here in Georgia.

Today I decided to expand that analysis and look at two regions of the country: the West Coast (made up of California, Oregon and Washington) and the Old South (comprised in this analysis of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee).  As it happens, these two regions also have very comparable populations: 52.0 million in the Old South versus 51.4 million on the West Coast.

This comparison also gives us the same political split.  The West Coast is famously deep blue; all three states have liberal Democratic governors.  The Old South is bright red and governed by proudly right-wing politicians.

So how are they doing?  Let’s look first at the regional numbers.

Old South West Coast Summary

The state-by-state numbers look like this:

Old South West Coast State by State Detail

The West Coast, which suffered the country’s first COVID-19 blows as the virus moved in from China, has actually (as of the numbers available this morning on state websites today) recorded 43 more deaths than the Old South — but significantly fewer confirmed cases.  The Old South may have recorded 8.6 percent fewer deaths than the West Coast, but it’s posted 22.6 percent more infections.

Perhaps more telling are the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, which I’ve calculated using a standard formula: [(Confirmed Cases or Deaths/Population)*100,000].

This is, of course, a complex situation, with a great many variables at work.  The Old South starts at a disadvantage to its West Coast counterparts because it is both less healthy and more religious.  The higher percentages of comorbidities such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease constitute the kinds of “underlying medical conditions” that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and places of worship are among the mass gatherings that are now recognized as natural breeding grounds for the bug.  (I’ll try to flesh out these points in a later post, but you can find good rankings on health and religiosity here and here.)

That said, it seems increasingly difficult to argue that politics and public policy choices aren’t playing a significant role in how different parts of the country fare in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The West Coast governors acted well ahead of their Old South counterparts to begin shutting down their states.  Indeed, probably the first major American politician to take such action was San Francisco Mayor London Breed; she imposed a shelter-in-place order on March 13 and was joined by other Northern California officials three days later.  California Governor Gavin Newsom followed suit on March 19.  Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who was confronted with the nation’s first major outbreak in Seattle, banned major gatherings in heavily-populated counties on March 11, and then imposed a full shelter-in-place order on March 23.  Governor Kate Brown of Oregon came on board the next day.

Meanwhile, the Old South governors lagged well behind their West Coast counterparts and to a great extent deferred to local officials (only, once they did act, to upend many of the local actions).  Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves initially said he had no plans to issue a statewide order but did take to Facebook Live to conduct a prayer session on March 22.  Today, his state has among the nation’s highest COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and mortality rates.

Ditto Alabama.  There, as the West Coast governors were shutting down their states, Governor Kaye Ivey announced on March 24 she had no plans to issue a statewide order.  “We’re not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana,” she said.

Today, her state’s COVID-19 infection and mortality rates are worse than California’s.  Both she and Reeves threw in the towel late last week and issued statewide shelter-in-place orders.  As did the governors of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.  At this point, South Carolina is the only Old South hold-out.

Notably, the reluctant and belated actions by the southern governors have sowed widespread confusion.  Here in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp justified his turnaround decision to issue a shelter-in-place order with the dubious claim that he had only learned the day before that asymptomatic COVID-19 victims could spread the virus — even though public health officials had been saying as much since February.

That explanation earned him national media scorn (“Georgia Gov. Shows Just How Far Behind The World He Is On Coronavirus,” blared a HuffPost headline), but his shelter-in-place order may have done him at least as much local political damage.  One presumably unintended consequence of his order was that — by superseding local ordinances — it reopened Georgia’s Atlantic beaches, including Tybee Island, Jekyll Island and St. Simons.

According to a story in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Republican member of the Glynn County Commission, Peter Murphy, reacted thusly: “We had carefully considered ways to keep people safe here and the governor’s order has undermined everything we were doing.”  Murphy, a retired physician, had led the push to close down the local beaches.

Up the road at Tybee Island, an obviously peeved Mayor Shirley Sessions issued a statement that opened on a decidedly undiplomatic note: “As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the Coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen, and declared any decision-makers who refused to follow these orders would face prison and/or fines.”

Mayor Sessions went on to say bluntly that she and the Tybee Island City Council “do not support” Kemp’s decision and to make clear that — while the beaches themselves might be open — the town-controlled access points and parking lots would remain closed.  “At no time,” she said, “has the state designated a single point of contact to orchestrate the implementation of the Governor’s plan.”

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis fared little better when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on Wednesday.  Hours after signing that first order, The Tampa Bay Times reported that he “quietly signed another one that appeared to override restrictions put in place by local governments to halt the spread of coronavirus.  However, DeSantis on Thursday said the amendment he signed does the reverse, instigating another round of confusion over the intent of his directives.”

Is all this definitive?  Probably not.  Again, it’s arguably a little early for this kind of analysis.  But the data that’s already in is a little hard to ignore.

Watch this space.

Kemp, House Republicans headed for showdown over rural spending?

I’ve long thought Georgia was headed toward a rural reckoning that would boil down to money (as everything ultimately does), but I figured it might keep until the next reapportionment.  That’s when legislative power will almost certainly consolidate solidly and irrevocably in Metro Atlanta.  I may have been wrong.

Now comes James Salzer with the lead story in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a detailed rundown on Governor Brian Kemp’s proposed cuts to important rural programs, including some developed by the House Rural Development Council.

This is a little odd, of course, because Kemp, Georgia’s third Republican governor, rode into office on a tsunami of rural votes, and the operating presumption has been that Job One for Kemp & Co. would be to take care of rural Georgia.

The fact that we’ve already got this public a split on rural spending between the second and third floors of the Capitol is at least mildly surprising.  The House Appropriations Committee, which was the source of most of the grousing quoted in Salzer’s story, is made up largely of rural and small-town legislators from outside the Metro Atlanta area.

By my rough count, only about 30 of the committee’s 80 members come from Metro Atlanta, and most of those are from the suburbs.  Only a handful come from inside the perimeter.  In contrast, the committee’s leaders hail from places like Auburn, Ashburn, Musella, Nashville, Thomasville, and Moultrie.

To some degree, this may be little more than the annual kabuki theater the General Assembly performs — some might say stages — around the annual budget.  But it feels like more than that.

Watch this space.

Kemp’s “rural strike team” should be a step in the right direction. We’ll see.

First, props where they’re deserved.  Georgia Governor Brian Kemp actually took a step in the right direction Monday when he told the AJC he’s creating a “rural strike team” to try to stimulate economic development in the state’s dying hinterlands.  He reportedly plans to unveil the details in Swainsboro on Thursday.

Only time will tell whether this is anything more than eyewash and window dressing, but there were a couple of promising hints in the AJC’s story.  One was that he’s bringing together “a half-dozen state departments and higher education agencies” to drive the effort.  That implies a more strategic approach and focus than I’ve seen so far, and one that’s long overdue.  Still, the strike force will have its work cut out for it.

The state of Georgia is quite literally in the process of tearing itself apart along rural and urban lines, and especially between Metro Atlanta and just about everything else from Macon south.  These are not slow-moving trends.  No matter how you come at it – economically, educationally, health-wise, politically – you can pretty much watch the division in real-time.

Take education as an example.  In 1970, according to Census Bureau data, there were fewer than a quarter of a million college graduates in the entire state of Georgia, and slightly more than half of them lived outside Trouble in God’s Country’s 12-county Metro Atlanta region.  Today, the state is home to nearly two million college graduates and 63 percent of them live in Metro Atlanta.

That disparity is only going to grow.  Up until 2011, the 147 counties outside Metro Atlanta sent more freshmen to University System of Georgia (USG) institutions than the 12 Metro Atlanta counties, which is probably what you’d expect.  But in 2011 Metro Atlanta overtook the rest of the state and ever since then it’s been sending significantly more freshmen to USG colleges and universities than the rest of the state combined (see graph at right).

At the state’s two flagship universities, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, the gulf is bigger yet.  At Georgia Tech, 75.5 percent of the Fall 2018 in-state freshmen came from Metro Atlanta; at UGA, just over 63 percent of the in-state freshmen came from Metro Atlanta.  By my count, 71 counties, all rural, didn’t send a single high school graduate to Tech in the fall of 2018; at UGA, the same was true of 22 counties.

These differences matter.  Not only do they fuel Metro Atlanta’s outsized economic growth, they drive widening disparities in taxes paid and social services consumed.  With just under half the state’s population, Metro Atlanta in 2016 coughed up nearly two-thirds of the state’s federal taxes while consuming, as examples, about 37 percent of the state’s Medicaid services and about 41 percent of its food stamp benefits.

You can do the math on the other side of that equation.  Oh, okay, I’ll help: the 99 counties that constitute Trouble in God’s Country’s Middle and South Georgia regions don’t even come close to covering their own Medicaid and food stamp costs, let alone anything else.  After a while these kinds of numbers get to be politically untenable.

Some years back, I presented a very early version of my Trouble in God’s Country research to a group made up primarily of legislators.  One of those was House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Mickey Channell, who has since passed away.  “What do you do about it?” he asked.  I didn’t know then and still don’t, at least not entirely.  But I’ve since given it a lot of thought and would offer the following as a running start at an answer:

  • First, the multi-agency approach suggested by Kemp is the right idea — and critical. The state of Georgia arguably has one of the strongest and most sophisticated economic development infrastructures in the nation, but my sense is that its work has been largely siloed and not well integrated with other departments and agencies of state government.  The state’s urban-rural divide and the deterioration in much of rural Georgia constitutes a truly strategic problem.  It’s not an exaggeration to call it an all-hands-on-deck crisis.  In addition to the departments of Economic Development and Community Affairs, the team will have to include high-level engagement from throughout the state’s education bureaucracies and, I’d argue, public health and human services.
  • Start with a realistic evaluation of the state’s various rural areas and recognize that some are more viable than others. Some politicians like to say they want to run government like a business.  In business, if you’re losing money year after year, sooner or later you call it quits.  Under that theory, I can take the governor to 50 or so counties where he ought to turn out the lights and call it a day.  We can’t do that, of course, but it ought to be possible to invest discretionary tax dollars and other public resources in areas that at least have a fighting chance of generating a return, in terms of new growth and economic prosperity.  In other words, resist the normal political temptation to attack the worst problems first; instead, identify the regions that still have a pulse and see if they can be saved.
  • Shore up the regional hub cities first. It’s not just Georgia’s purely rural areas that are in serious decline; a lot of the major regional cities – Macon, Columbus, Augusta, etc. – are suffering various types of distress, and they are vital to rural areas around them.  As a practical matter, it may be too late to do much good for Albany and the rural counties between it and the Alabama line; that entire region of the state is bleeding population and shrinking economically to a degree that may put it beyond near-term salvation.  Figuring out how to strengthen other major hubs in ways that will enable them to better support their rural neighbors should be pretty close to the top of the to-do list for Kemp’s strike force.
  • Challenge the rural areas to compete for the state’s attention and dollars. Hopefully, one of the initiatives that will come out of Kemp’s effort will be a process by which multi-county regions or areas of the state can apply to the state for funding and technical support.  It shouldn’t be entirely on Kemp’s strike force to show up in Enigma, Ga., and say, “We’re from state government and we’re here to help you.”  Rural areas should be required to come forward with a rational vision, demonstrate that they have the leadership capacity to drive a major effort, and put serious skin in the game.  There should be milestones in that process and a credible system for evaluating progress.
  • Bite the political bullet and implement Medicaid Expansion. I should have listed this first but figured Republicans would stop reading right then and there.  Refusing to take advantage of Medicaid Expansion was the major failure of Nathan Deal’s administration and Kemp shows little inclination to do any better.  His attempt at a “waiver” approach (an all but transparent effort to deny Barack Obama any credit for the program) apparently can’t even pass muster in Donald Trump’s Washington.  Meanwhile, rural hospitals continue to close and people continue to die, prematurely and unnecessarily.  Even if Deal, Kemp & Co. are blind to the health benefits of Medicaid Expansion, you’d think they’d see the economic benefits of pumping billions of dollars into rural Georgia.  Maybe all things Obamacare still constitute a third rail of politics for Georgia Republicans, but my hunch is that the radioactivity levels tied to Medicaid Expansion have diminished to a point that it could be a political winner for Kemp – a Nixon-to-China sort of moment.

Again, I don’t know whether Kemp’s ”rural strike force” will prove to be anything more than eyewash and window dressing, but it’s encouraging that he’s taking a stab at the problem.  Hope springs eternal.

(c) Trouble in God’s Country 2019