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03/04/01 - The dusty dirt roads of rural Georgia don't have a lot

 The Athens Newspapers

Sunday, March 04, 2001

ATLANTA -- The dusty dirt roads of rural Georgia don't have a lot in common with the city streets of Atlanta.
But every year, legislators from big cities and small towns get together at the Capitol to try to craft laws that will benefit the whole state.
They don't always see eye to eye.
''I can't go back to the Montezuma Kiwanis Club and brag on the World Congress Center,'' state Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, said during a recent debate, referring to $20 million in bonds the General Assembly approved for an Atlanta convention site in 1999.
''They'll throw me out the side door and into the Flint River.''
Disagreements between urban and rural lawmakers are nothing new in Georgia politics. But during the 2001 General Assembly session, the divisions have cropped up in some unlikely places.
And with census numbers showing even more population growth around Atlanta, representatives from small towns fear they'll lose ground and legislative seats in what both sides call a fairly even game of give and take.
In the largest state east of the Mississippi River with the 10th largest population in the nation, Georgia citizens range from very urban to very rural, experts say, and have vastly different priorities.
''In terms of demographics, Georgia is fairly unique,'' said University of Georgia sociologist Doug Bachtel. ''There are 159 unique counties. The cookie-cutter approach just isn't going to work.''
Some disagreements are obvious and relatively predictable, like this session's vote to change the Georgia flag. With a few exceptions, city lawmakers backed shrinking the Confederate emblem while those from the country voted to keep the old flag.
But the ''two Georgias'' concept has shown up at other times as well.

Examples include:

A bill that would have sent $68 million in school-construction money to some of Georgia's fastest-growing counties was changed so that $00 million would go to other slower-growing, and presumably rural, counties.

The Senate approved a water-planning district for the Atlanta area, despite fears that the plan could lead to the metro area siphoning off water from other areas of the state.

A plan to speed up highway construction throughout Georgia got a chilly reception from Atlanta-area lawmakers who would see little benefit from it.

A debate over whether Georgia should allow private prisons to house out-of-state inmates turned into an argument over economic development in some of the state's poor, rural counties.

''For those of us from rural Georgia who are fighting hard to get whatever industry we can, that's our only hope for growth,'' said state Rep. Terry Barnard, R-Glennville, who sits on the committee that heard the debate.

''That's why we feel the rest of the state should take a moment and think about these things.''
Many of his colleagues say they've voted in the past for bills that benefit areas different from their own districts. But in the end, they say, taking care of the folks back home is top priority.
''Everyone is going to take care of the area they represent first,'' said Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah. ''It just depends on where we sit.''
Caught somewhere in the middle are the representatives of Georgia's mid-sized cities, or those from districts that contain urban, suburban and rural sections.
Bachtel said those lawmakers find themselves siding with one side or the other based on a number of variables.
''You can look at north Georgia vs. south Georgia, the cities vs. the countryside, Atlanta vs. the rest of the state, the suburbs vs. the big city,'' he said. ''There's a zillion ways to cut this.''
In the 180-member House, there are 59 representatives from the four counties that make up the heart of metro Atlanta. Nineteen of the Senate's 56 members hail from those same counties.
Those numbers climb even higher when including all 20 counties that make up what the census considers the metropolitan Atlanta area.
Sen. Mike Beatty, R-Jefferson, represents six entire counties and north Georgia Sen. Carol Jackson, D-Cleveland, speaks for eight.
But in the General Assembly, seniority often equals power. And rural voters' habit of keeping the same lawmakers in office longer than their urban counterparts has paid off in political clout that helps balance the equation.
In rural areas, ''the change process is pretty slow,'' Bachtel said. ''A lot of the legislators get elected and re-elected, and they get seniority.
''As a result, you have some rural legislators who are very powerful and begin to control the committees where the real work gets done.''
The 2000 Census showed more than two-thirds of Georgia's growth occurred in and around Atlanta. As a result, when new political districts are drawn this year, the section of Georgia south of Macon could lose from five to seven seats to metro Atlanta.
Even so, Bachtel said city lawmakers would do well to keep the interests of rural Georgia in mind.
''Urban problems sometimes have their roots in rural areas,'' said Bachtel, who noted the nation's big city riots of the 1960s were due, in part, to huge numbers of rural people who had moved to the cities to find work.
And urban and rural areas also compliment each other in ways that may not always be obvious to those in the major population centers, he said. ''This is where your food and your clothes and your paper are coming from,'' he said. ''It's really important that we make these places attractive areas for folks to live and work in.''