Dirt has no soul. It does not hunger. It is without memory. Its meaning is no more than we assign.
Urban Fellow Peter Bluestone, a researcher at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, has brought forth an exhaustive study that should probably be the last of its kind funded with public money.
“Claims have been made,” he notes, “regarding the potential geographic imbalance between the revenues generated in an area and the public expenditures received.” His research, therefore, is an “attempt to document these flows.”
To what purpose?
That is clear. To establish conclusively and finally that metro Atlanta is entitled to more state money. This is, after all, the dirt that accounts for 61 percent of state revenues, while it receives 47 percent.
Those 28 counties — metro Atlanta as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau — hold 54 percent of Georgia’s population. The counties run from Bartow and Pickens on the north, out to Newton and Walton on the east, to Spalding and Meriwether on the south, to Carroll and Haralson on the west.
Bluestone’s research is superb and the data rich. It establishes conclusively, for example, that voters are being hoodwinked by those who push local-option sales taxes with the premise that up to 40 percent to 45 percent of the burden will be borne by visitors. Bluestone’s finding is that in metro Atlanta “out-of-state and out-of-region visitor spending did not significantly affect sales tax collections in fiscal year 2004,” the data-year studied.
The research will undoubtedly be employed by the special pleaders to make the case that metro Atlanta does not get its “fair share” of the state’s bounty. It is, instead, research that should put to rest forevermore the notion that the governor and the Georgia General Assembly should fragment the state into regions, each with proportional entitlements and claims on the state treasury.
This is the research effort that should make it clear to Gov. Sonny Perdue, to legislators and to future leaders of Georgia that their obligation is to reunite Georgia into one and to develop public policies that serve people as they choose to live and where they choose to live. One pending issue is transportation.
Without question, Georgia needs to have a statewide plan without provisions contained in Senate Resolution 44 that would allow regional options for a 1-cent sales tax. It should be one plan for one state, connected top to bottom, with one statewide sales tax, as proposed in House Resolution 206.
The research, for whatever political purposes it might be used, does raise the question of whether the state’s obligation is to serve dirt or people. Yes, metro Atlanta disproportionately pays. But metro Atlanta disproportionately earns. It’s not the dirt that pays or earns.
The 54 percent of Georgians who live in metro Atlanta account for 66 percent of the $6.2 billion in personal income tax paid. We didn’t pay more because of geography, nor did a high-income earner in Valdosta or Toccoa pay less. They simply chose to live in different places.
House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island) thinks that any attempt to set public policy based on a link between revenues generated and expenditures received “doesn’t work based on any size” county or groupings of counties. “Even within a single county, one portion of the population pays more than another,” he said. “I hear these arguments all the time. Show me one place where the exact amount you pay is the amount that you get back.”
As for the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow regional local-option sales taxes, Keen said, “The only one in the state that would benefit from a regional tax is metro Atlanta. I venture to say that no other county would ever do it.”
The fact that metro Atlanta generates a greater share of the state’s revenues does not mean that the state has any greater obligation to Atlanta-area government and institutions. The small hospital in the Southwest Georgia town of Arlington, Calhoun Memorial, has lost money for the past five years. Its moral claim to state funds, if available, is no less than those of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, because its people are poorer or because their earth lies below less economic activity.
The same is true of education funding. While schools in metro Atlanta have access to greater local property tax revenues, the state’s obligation is not to the governments that run them, but to the children. Each child, regardless of where he lives, should have a fixed sum, a voucher, that legislators determine is sufficient to buy a decent education. If the county can’t or won’t provide it, the child’s parents should have it to buy elsewhere.
It’s not dirt. It’s people.
Responsible policy-making doesn’t mean the state is obligated to equalize lifestyle and opportunities, regardless of the choices individuals make. Making it “just good enough” so that people in poverty won’t move from where they can’t find jobs to where they can is honoring dirt while disserving people.
The legislator’s job is to weigh what’s best for the entire state and to legislate accordingly.
Neither the residents of Arlington nor those in metro Atlanta are entitled by virtue of the dirt they occupy.
Dirt does not breathe. It does not carry virtue for the prosperity nor responsibility for the poverty that occurs above it. It does not bear shame for the injustices perpetuated there, nor does it memorialize poverty because it was once covered by pockets of it.