Originally created 03/06/03

Senator proposes agency for Black Belt poverty



WASHINGTON -- Georgia Sen. Zell Miller unveiled his plan to revive the Southern Black Belt by proposing a new $100 million agency Wednesday to address poverty in the swath of heavily black counties.

It's the third different legislative approach by Southern lawmakers, who contend the counties stretching from Texas to Virginia are the last impoverished region that hasn't benefited from a federal agency focused entirely on its needs.

Miller's plan is somewhat less ambitious - and less expensive - than two already proposed in the House, but he says there is plenty of room for compromise.

The Southern Regional Commission, as he calls it, would get $20 million a year for the first five years, about half the amount proposed in a similar effort by North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre.

Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, a fellow Democrat, is pushing a nearly $500 million plan to merge the Black Belt counties with the current Delta Regional Authority, which touches some of the territory.

Miller, a former Democratic governor and a native of the north Georgia mountains, said he would meet with the two congressmen soon in hopes of reaching a consensus.

The obstacle will be money, Miller admitted. Lawmakers are trying to keep spending in check to pay for a potential war with Iraq, and it's not clear there will be much interest in a new domestic agency.

The funding shortage delayed Miller's plan, even though a University of Georgia study he commissioned determined a new agency could help. But with the McIntyre and Davis proposals moving forward, Miller decided it was time the effort had an advocate in the Senate.

"This is an exciting time as we hit head-on from both houses the economic concerns that have long been overlooked in the Southeastern United States," McIntyre said.

Beyond money, there are differences between the Miller and McIntyre plans. Miller designates 242 eligible counties in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. McIntyre lets the agency determine the eligible counties, with the provision that at least half the funds go to the ones with the greatest need.

Davis' measure creating the Delta Black Belt Regional Authority would apply to 552 counties in 14 states. Some 20 percent of the agency's budget would go to a community-based representative board that would hold annual public hearings to assess its effectiveness.

The term Black Belt was first used a century ago by ex-slave Booker T. Washington to describe a small section of Alabama known for dark soil ideal for growing cotton. Historians and demographers have broadened it since to include the entire region.

The region, which has an African-American population that is double the national average, is characterized by low employment, low incomes, low education levels, poor health and high infant mortality.

"If you invest in this money right now, you're going to save money down the road," Miller said. "You're going to create taxpayers instead of tax eaters. It will more than pay for itself in long run."

On the Net:

Sen. Zell Miller: http://miller.senate.gov/

Appalachian Regional Commission: http://www.arc.gov/