A Change of Terms
The more things change the more they stay the same. There should be some distress in Georgia over the split between urban Atlanta and counties outside I-285. It is a divide between liberals and conservatives, between Democrats and Republicans. Yet, this split between regions has always been so, according to a new book called Cobb County, Georgia and the Origins of the Suburban South, by Thomas Allen Scott.
Scott's book documents that in the early part of the 20th century Democrats tended to be anti-urban. They accomplished this by giving small counties a disproportionately large number of legislative seats. By using the infamous county-unit system to undercount the urban vote, the Democrats ensured rural domination throughout the first three-fifths of the 20th century.
Democrat office holders catered to farming interests over those of urbanites. Landholders often were wealthy in property, but short on cash, and therefore reluctant to approve high real estate taxes.
The book maintains that consequently, public schools were shortchanged and Georgia put too few dollars into railroad (transportation) and utility improvements. "Excessively frugal fiscal policies guaranteed that the South failed to create an environment for industrial growth," Scott writes.
The same situation present in the early 1900s is present in Georgia today. Just substitute Republican for Democrat and suburbanite for farmer. Some of the situations described in this book are gone with the wind, including the infamous county-unit system.
Yet the book asserts that in 2005 we are still reaping the results of earlier frugal government. Georgia's public school system is in the bottom 25 percent of the country's school systems. Our education system is below average, and has recently had its funding cut by more than $500 million. Our public transportation system is miles behind that of other national urban and suburban areas. Traffic is choking Atlanta. The road system in Georgia today has fallen behind in basic repairs and maintenance.
One conservative friend of mine told me a story of how he recently drove an hour and a half between his Buckhead home to an event held just five miles away to support Johnny Isakson, who, at the time, was running for the Senate. He told our newest senator, "Johnny, if you politicians don't do something about this traffic, you'll all be run out of office in six years."
This same friend supported Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin's tax increase to help repair the city's failing water and sewage infrastructure, even though his tax bill ballooned to $18,000 a year. "I trust her, and something has to be done, he said. "So I support the tax."
The new Republican legislature and Republican governor are on a major campaign to cut state taxes and state services.
"If a bill doesn't reduce government or reduce taxes, it won't make it to the floor of the legislature," says Glenn Richardson, our new Speaker of the House of Representatives.
This shift in government thinking harkens back to an earlier century when another Republican, President Grover Cleveland, said, "The danger of government is to expect from the operation of government special and direct individual advantages." Cleveland also said, "Government functions do not include the support of the people." Cleveland was later defeated because he cancelled pensions for Civil War veterans.
Yet one of the main reasons Georgia has been among the fastest-growing states in the nation for the past 50 years was all the tax dollars pumped into this state by the federal government. These federal funds were matched by state, county and city governments to improve roads and water systems, build industrial parks and infrastructure, and improve other government services.
The influx was instituted by a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, father of the modern Interstate highway system. In North Georgia, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was founded during his term.
This column is not a call to raise taxes. Like everyone else, I hate taxes. I hope the 2005 Legislature works to cancel all unnecessary taxes and services.
Yet it is also my hope the next legislative session in 2006 will look at restoring some of the revenue that has been cut from education, transportation, health care and other important government services.
And, to our legislators, please don't say you have reduced state taxes by passing the service responsibility to Georgia's cities and counties. This doesn't reduce taxes, it shifts taxes.
The truth is that people don't mind paying taxes for important government services. And it is important that government provide services such as giving our children a good education, building a decent road system or even picking up garbage.
Our new state government is passing the buck on many of these services. Being frugal and being foolish are two separate things. We certainly do not want Georgia to become the backwater it was in the early part of the last century. I think my friend is right in saying that the people of Georgia will give our elected officials six years to fix important government services. If they can't do it, they may well be run out of office.
Neely Young is the editor in chief and publisher of Georgia Trend.