Charlie Harper: Georgia growth, by the numbers

June 3, 2014 

Quietly and without fanfare, Georgia is now the eighth largest state according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Their numbers have us passing Michigan in the last official estimate. As of 2013, we're just a few thousand short of ten million people calling Georgia Home.

After a few years of pause to regroup during the recent financial crisis, Georgia is growing again. Many of the problems within the real estate and banking sectors have worked their way out. Our airline and other transportation logistics companies are thriving. Companies such as Caterpillar and Baxter are opening new major facilities in Georgia, while others such as State Farm are consolidating their operations to our state, bringing with them thousands of new jobs.

Georgia has had little to invest for growth during the previous lean years, and has instead focused on "competitiveness." Tax cuts have been targeted at luring and maintaining manufacturing industries, such as elimination of manufacturers taxes paid on electricity. Georgia's positioning and rankings in this area are a focal point of debate for this year's contest for Governor.

A new report by Georgia State's economic forecasting office seems to demonstrate that we're adding jobs again, with a projected 20,000 net new jobs to be added per quarter for the foreseeable future. As has been the custom for the past few decades, Georgia's jobs base is growing. With this success comes population growth as others are attracted to these positions. And with this growth come both challenges and responsibility.

As Georgia begins to look ahead, we see that we're likely to be in the 8th spot for population for just so long. Georgia's population grew 19% in the Seventies and Eighties, a whopping 26% in the Nineties, and 18% in the last decade. Ohio, 7th in population, has grown less than 2% per decade over that time period, as has Pennsylvania at number 6. Illinois, at number 5, has fared slightly better, but still under 4% per decade.

What does this mean for Georgia? If we grow at just the pace of the slowest decade of the past four, we will be roughly tied with Ohio for the seventh largest state at the next census. Further, within 25 years, we will pass both Pennsylvania and Illinois to be the fifth most populated state in the country. Only California, Texas, New York, and Florida will have more residents.

It also means that when this happens, we'll have to make room for four more million people. That is no small task, and requires vision, planning, and execution. It will also require investment.

Georgia has spent much of the economic downturn maximizing efficiency in our roadways. We are utilizing technology to synchronize traffic lights and meter on ramps to freeways. We incentivize tow truck drivers to clear truck accidents faster. Georgia partners with State Farm Insurance to provide HERO units to assist troubled motorists. This helps reduce much of the current congestion caused by the unplanned activities of motorists.

There have been commitments to new investments as well. Additional managed toll/HOT lanes will be added to metro Atlanta's freeways to add capacity in and out of the city during rush hours. Major interchanges have been funded for redesign. And the city of Atlanta is adding streetcars and planning for a Beltline transit loop.

We also have secured funding for deepening the port of Savannah, which will increase the freight coming into Georgia and continue our growth as a logistics center. This opportunity will also present additional challenges, as much of Georgia's freight rail network is currently operating at maximum capacity. Additional rail investment will be needed, or otherwise much of our port traffic could end up on our roads, increasing already crowded conditions.

That brings us to the issue of spending. Significant portions of the sales taxes (taxes based on the "user pay, user benefit" bargain made with Georgia's voters) that come from the sale of motor fuel are diverted from their intended purpose into other purposes. Consequently, Georgia continues to maintain its dead-last spot in per-capita funding in the United States. Dead. Last.

We have not modernized or reformed our convoluted motor fuel tax structure in decades. As a result, our transportation program relies on the federal government for 62% of our annual capital and maintenance spending. Our largest transit system is the only major transit system in the country that does not receive state support. Our freight rail providers operate primarily without state support.

For a state that has "logistics in our DNA" as Atlanta Mayor Reed likes to say, we're frankly not even keeping up, much less preparing for a growth rate that will make Georgia a top five state.

Georgia is a competitive and attractive state to live in and operate a business in, with our logistics network a primary contributor to both our economic competitiveness and our quality of life. This is not something, however, that can ever be taken for granted.

Laurels that are rested upon are frequently lost in our competitive world. Georgia weathered a severe blow to the gut during the financial collapse and has emerged stronger and leaner. The results of our actions are beginning to show, and others are again flocking to our success.

The time is now to plan to build on this and prepare for growth, less we let our success become the catalyst for our future failures.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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