The following article is an opinion piece by the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of AllOnGeorgia. 


To date, of the candidates announced for Georgia Governor, none are from rural Georgia. A claim “outside the metro area” as home, but none are from the far reaching corners of the state, the areas desperate for help but would settle for simple attention.

Lt. Governor Casey CagleChestnut Mountain in Hall County
Senator Hunter Hillthe greater Atlanta/metropolis of Cobb County
Secretary of State Brian Kemp  – Athens in Clarke County
Senator Michael WilliamsForsyth County
State Representative Stacey EvansCobb County
State Representative Stacey Abrams Atlanta
Libertarian Doug Craig Columbus

While the candidates are mildly diverse by location, they lack an understanding of the day-to-day life in rural Georgia. Regardless of what anyone tells you, there ARE two Georgias. Metro areas and rural areas vary vastly – from taxes to education to access to Internet and health care to job opportunities and so much more. That’s why our state used to have a unit system, granting equal votes for statewide office from each county. While I’m no expert, I have had the opportunity to experience life in both worlds and have a unique perspective on just how different the two lifestyles are.

You may be thinking to yourself, “Governor Deal is from the small town of Millen in Jenkins County, and he hasn’t exactly governed under the mantra of two Georgias,” and I don’t have a response for that. But we are headed for change and residents of rural Georgia have 16 months to vet the candidates. My selfish wish is that people outside the metro area would be self-serving about their needs and understand that very few people in the political arena are looking out for small town America. Some areas are struggling so much, they may not be around for the next gubernatorial election.

The FairTax, Constitutional Carry, casinos, term limits, school choice – those are all important topics to discuss, but they’re also default topics. So we needn’t waste time on the political divide – those issues will be there no matter what.

We must focus on the bigger issues, ones that can no longer be discussed at a 30,000 foot view, ones that will determine the survival rate of half of the state over the next decade.

Agriculture

All of our farmers are struggling. In an industry that is regulated by the government and not the market, it does not matter the size of the farm – the unpredictability, the subsidies, and the overregulation is killing our farmers, and yet, we seem to ignore this and  the fact that agriculture is the number one industry in Georgia. Occasionally, we see elected officials touring mega-farms for photo ops, but few are asking the mom&pop farmers what would help keep their endangered family farm in operation. No one likes to talk about the fact that agriculture is the only industry where the producer doesn’t get to determine the price of the goods he buys or the price of the goods he sells. 

One candidate’s website actually cites their agriculture initiative as, “Work with the Trump administration to reduce federal regulations that are burdening our farmers. We have a unique opportunity to see great improvements in this area.” Sorry, but that isn’t going to cut it.

EPD regulations, water pollution, duplicative Georgia Department of Agriculture rules that mimic USDA regulations, water usage, endangered species, special treatment for “public land,” food labeling laws, eminent domain, the prohibtion of raw milk…and so much more.

Republicans landed all the top statewide constitutional offices and both chambers of the legislature in 2010, but in the last four years, only two pieces of legislation have eased regulation on agriculture at all. That is an abysmal ratio.

Broadband Internet Access  

Consider Wheeler County where the majority of residents are on satellite Internet programs and many have to drive to the center of Alamo in order to reach the outside world. That’s a lifestyle many metro people cannot even grasp.

At some point, someone thought it was a good idea to allow local governments to sell exclusive rights to service providers to essentially “install” Internet infrastructure. Now, those companies are struggling with resources and funds to do so and can’t reach the areas they promised to, while other companies are sitting on properties across the road, waiting for opportunities to expand where government won’t currently allow.

Internet access is directly tied to unemployment rates, job creation (obviously), and higher income levels. Ask your candidate to name a five counties that don’t have broadband Internet.

Education

Simply saying “We need more parental involvement” and “Children have a constitutional right to an education” is not enough.

Our state operates on the premise of mandates that require rural areas to apply for varying waivers year after year because they simply don’t have the means to comply. Couple that with the truth that rural counties will never get what they need unless the legislature pulls money from metro counties, and the education conversation is just the proverbial dog and pony show.

And don’t even get me started on the transportation needs. Who thought a sum of money issued by the state to a school system was going to maintain a school bus that drives upwards of 50 miles on dirt roads every day for as long as one that travels 10 miles a day on freshly-paved suburban asphalt?

Also, it goes beyond primary education. Offering income tax credits for those employed with special trade certifications does little if the technical college system is underfunded. Make the University System do with less so the tech schools that prop up rural communities can have a little more. 

There is much room for improvement.

Healthcare

Don’t let your candidate get away with saying “free market principles!” 

When a hospital leaves a county, it is almost guaranteed that the county will tank – and quickly. But access to health care goes beyond the emergency room. Georgia ranks 39th in the nation for the ratio of doctors per 100,000 residents. In 2014, 79 counties had no OB/GYN, 66 counties had no general surgeon, 63 had no pediatrician, and 6 had no family medicine doctor.  49.6% of Georgia counties have no OB/GYN and 41.5% of counties have no pediatrician.

Couple all of this with the fact that Blue Cross Blue Shield is the only insurance provider in 96 of Georgia’s 159 counties and it is easy to see why we are where are.

Our next Governor needs to go beyond the conversation of expanding or not expanding Medicaid because that is only a small part of the problem.. He/she needs a firm understanding of the repercussions of Certificate of Need laws, the ever-dwindling Medicaid/Medicare reimbursements, and should have the courage to push legislators to evaluate whether or not the medical school loan payback programs are actually working. Doctors who wanted to purchase a facility and create a private surgical center should not be fighting for the ability to do so in Georgia’s Supreme Court.

And please – stop condemning the Affordable Care Act if you’re going to sign into law bills that mandate insurance companies cover autism or require insurance companies to provide a certain number of hearing aids each year. It is literally the same thing.

Infrastructure 

Muh roads! The only way we can continually, effectively, and quickly improve our roads around the state is to use more money. But as the Transportation Tax of 2015 has shown us, sometimes these statewide tax initiatives hurt rural counties more than they help. Tattnall County, for example, spent more money sending money to the state than it received two years ago.

The state complains that we send our gas tax to the federal government, they take a percentage, and send it back, but that’s exactly what the state does to the local governments.

Job Opportunities

Speaking of “have nots,” six Georgia counties have do not have a lawyer practicing inside the county limits at all and dozens with less than 10 attorneys.  You’re probably thinking, “Well, this world doesn’t need any more lawyers,” and you’re probably right. But a practicing attorney is indicative of activity – economic activity. Businesses, families, divorces, estates, all of the things in which lawyers meddle. Many counties seeing a decline in lawyers are also seeing a decline in health care professionals, and before long, it’s just the farmers and the people.

I worked on a campaign not too long ago in one of Georgia’s poorest counties. I met a little girl on the campaign trail who had written a letter encouraging her county commissioners to change some of the business regulations in place so her friends would stop fleeing the county when they grew up – whether they went to college or not – and would instead want to stay in their community. Counties around the state are desperate to give their residents a reason to stick around. Government can’t create jobs, but neither can a business in a county that lacks health care, infrastructure, education, and broadband Internet access.

Can the government fix all of these problems? No. Can the Governor fix all of these problems? Absolutely not. Most of us understand that the best thing our state government can do is get out of the way unless they’re working to protect us from the federal government. But Georgia needs someone who understands the problems half of our state is facing and considers those problems when making decisions.

Georgia needs a governor who is willing to make difficult decisions – perhaps politically unpopular decisions – and sacrifice metro regions every once in a while for the sake of the dwindling counties, the ones with shrinking populations, not growing. Half of Georgians still live “out here.”

Ask your candidates what they plan to do. Ask them specific questions, questions that pertain to your small county, your community. Leave the “generalized” questions for the mail pieces they’ll send you and the radio ads you’ll soon be tired of hearing. Put them on the spot. Make them uncomfortable. Rural Georgia can’t take much more neglect and empty promises and it’s time citizens stop settling for mediocre. 

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Jessica Szilagyi is statewide contributor for All On Georgia and Market Manager for Southeast Georgia. Her main focus with All On Georgia is state and local politics as well as agriculture. She’s served as a policy analyst at the State Capitol and as a campaign manager in political races across the state.

She writes for GeorgiaPol.com and has two blogs of her own: ‘The Perspicacious Conservative’, a political blog, and ‘Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers’, a blog on moving from Atlanta to rural Georgia. Jessica is also a contributor for Fox5 Atlanta’s ‘Like it Or Not.’

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