ATLANTA — A group of state lawmakers is exploring the idea of using income tax breaks to help repopulate rural Georgia and the ghost towns that now dot the landscape after years of population decline.
The “Rural Relocate and Reside” program would offer one-time, 10-year state income tax deductions of up to $50,000 to new residents of certain counties, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported .
More money could be available if a county wanted to attract a particular individual or group.
The idea is far from becoming reality. But current discussions about helping rural areas involve 124 of Georgia’s 159 counties. All have experienced less than five percent growth over the last five years.
The concept is part of the House Rural Development Council, ordered by Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, which recently issued its list of suggested improvements for rural Georgia. When state lawmakers convene in Atlanta on Jan. 8, the extension of broadband access to neglected corners of the state will top that to-do list.
Ralston, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other Georgia leaders - Democrats as well as Republican - have focused a lot of attention on internet access in rural Georgia. They consider it a fundamental necessity when it comes to providing health care and giving public school classrooms access to well-trained teachers.
The proposal to repopulate rural Georgia is partly aimed at attracting high-earning residents who can spur economic growth, the Atlanta newspaper reported.
“One of the things we consistently heard was the concern that, as time goes on, their best and brightest were leaving to go to college, leaving town to go to wherever — whether it be Atlanta or Athens. They were not coming back home,” said state Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, who is co-chair of the rural council and also chairman of the House appropriations committee.
Pools of civil leadership - future mayors, county commissioners, school board members and such - are drying up, England said.
Only 11 rural counties in Georgia have a larger population now than in 1860, when cotton and slavery dominated the economy. Thirty-six Georgia counties now have death rates higher than their birth rates. All are in rural Georgia, according to statistics compiled by the rural development council.
While Georgia’s population has doubled over two generations, two-thirds of the growth has been concentrated in seven counties that make up metro Atlanta or Savannah.
In an economic development climate that has become more and more technology-based, relocating companies go where the millennial talent lives, works - and often prefers commuter rail.
England said the current Georgia repopulation idea would target young professionals and is partially based on a program already underway in Kansas, where those who move in from out of state can receive an income tax credit for up to five years in “rural opportunity zones.”