Posted inTom Baxter

Fastest-growing counties aren’t in Metro Atlanta anymore

Georgia’s a big state with a lot of counties, so don’t feel bad if you can’t locate Chattahoochee and Long counties on a map. On the other hand it might be time to brush up on your geography: Chattahoochee and Long are the third and fifth-fastest growing  counties, respectively, in the United States, according to the latest report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Over the years we’ve grown accustomed to seeing one Metro Atlanta county or another near the top of the Census Bureau’s list of the 100 fastest-growing counties, as the boom spread outwards. But this year the fastest growing metro county was Forsyth, No. 29 in the country with a growth rate of 7.1 percent between 2010 and 2012. Fulton (No. 43 with 6.2 percent growth) and Gwinnett (No. 83 with 4.3 percent growth), were the only other metro counties on the top 100 list.

Chattahoochee  (15.7 percent growth rate) and Long (11.1 percent) counties are on opposite sides of the state from each other, and neither is close to Atlanta.

Posted inTom Baxter

Another water war comes down to court decision

Later this month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to add to the evolving case law dealing with how states share their increasingly precious water resources.

This time it’s not our water war that the court is concerned with. But how it rules in a long-running dispute between Texas and Oklahoma could affect how ours turns out.

There have been 38 interstate water compacts,  two of which were involved in the water war involving Georgia, Florida and Alabama over how much water Metro Atlanta can draw from Lake Lanier. Both those compacts were allowed to expire, although the issues they sought to address continue. Another is the Red River Compact, agreed to by the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana in 1980 for the “equitable apportionment among them of the waters of the Red River and its tributaries.”

Posted inTom Baxter

Austin is keeping it weird — and so should we

My colleague, Maria Saporta, recently visited Houston with a group of civic leaders and reported on that sprawling megalopolis beside which we often measure ourselves. Today we'll take a less formal look at another Texas city to which we need to pay attention.

If Houston is your uncle who got rich developing shopping centers back in the '80s, Austin is your nephew who just made a fortune on an Internet startup.

Until recently, the Texas capital's explosive growth has been overshadowed by its neighbors, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. But in this year's Forbes listing of the fastest growing cities in the country, it elbowed past its Texas rivals to take the No. 1 spot. And it's quality growth: Austin was the only U.S. city to make a 2010 ranking of the world's most dynamic cities, based on growth in employment and income.

Austin may still cultivate a small-town image, but the metro area passed a fateful milestone over the weekend, when its telephone service was shifted to a 10-digit dialing system.

Posted inTom Baxter

As conduits for drama, social media follow different paths

One of the significant cultural dividing lines these days is that between those who think of Mark Zuckerberg as a bright young guy and those who look upon him as a rich old dude.

This was born out recently by a Pew Research Center study which showed that teenagers are increasingly turning from Facebook toward Twitter and other sites with “fewer adults, fewer parents and just simply less complexity,” according to Amanda Lenhart, one of the authors of the study.

“Facebook just really seems to have more drama,” said Jaime Esquivel, a Virginia teen quoted in an AP story about the survey.

I may not think of “drama” in quite the same way as this high school junior, but I can certainly relate. As a journalist, a lot of people friend me on Facebook just to read me, and I de-friend only in the most extreme circumstances, so I see a wide slice of Facebook life. Believe me, it gets pretty wild out there at times.

Posted inTom Baxter

High school rankings portend a more diverse Georgia

Speaking to the Georgia Republicans at their state convention Saturday about the  need to bring minorities into the party, Gov. Nathan Deal cited what he called a “shocking” statistic: 56 percent of students in the state's public schools aren't white.

Actually, you would have to live in a very lily-white enclave to be very shocked.

Considering the dramatic demographic shifts which have taken place in recent years and the fact that whites comprise by far the highest percentage of students attending private schools in the state, it's no surprise non-white students make up the majority in public schools.

But there's another statistic that many in the state might really be shocked by. In the recent U.S. News and World Report of the nation's public high schools, the top three schools in the state, and seven of the top 10, have student bodies in which whites aren't in the majority.

Posted inTom Baxter

Big news: Newspapers, long mourned, aren’t really dead

There has recently been a man-bites-dog story about a newspaper, although it has received scant attention in the newspapers, which cover nothing so poorly as they cover themselves.

Last year the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced that it was cutting back to three print editions a week and would focus henceforth on “new and innovative ways” to cover the news online. That was a dog-bites-man story. The idea of cutting back circulation days has been kicked around in newspaper circles for several years, and Detroit and a few smaller papers have already done it. It’s in line with a larger narrative about the demise of newspapers at the hands of the internet.

Last month, however, the Times-Pic announced a change in strategy. This summer it will begin publication of a tabloid edition, to be called TPStreet, which it will sell for 75 cents a copy on the three weekdays — Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays — when it isn’t printing the old paper.

Posted inTom Baxter

Witherspoon’s fine another case of Atlanta’s celeb justice

Don’t get me wrong: I like Reese Witherspoon. A few years ago I was asked to suggest names for a list of outstanding young Southerners, and I included the Nashville native, as much for her business smarts  as a movie producer as for her acting ability.

But allow me to vent. After all, I’m a citizen of the City of Atlanta.

As practically everyone must know by now, Witherspoon was a passenger in a car driven by her husband, Jim Toth, when they were pulled over last April 19 by one of Atlanta’s Finest. As she has since acknowledged, the couple had consumed “one too many glasses of wine” at an Atlanta restaurant.

The officer was in the process of arresting Toth after the breathalyzer and coordination-test routine when Witherspoon hung her head out the window of the car and told him she didn’t believe he was a real police officer.

Posted inTom Baxter

Dear Howard Resident: The scandal of geriatric solicitation

By the time Howard had gone into a nursing home and his son and daughter-in-law had returned from the West Coast to take care of his affairs, the mail bulged from the mailbox every day, often overflowing in stacks 10 inches thick.

For a man of his limited means, Howard always gave generously to political and religious causes, but in the last year or so before he became unable to care for himself, the amounts of the checks he wrote began to increase. Correspondingly, so did the volume of mail, until his home became the postal equivalent of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

The family discovered that in that last year he wrote some 5,000 checks, for a total of about $70,000. His son estimates the total for all his sunset years to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Posted inTom Baxter

We have more to fear than fear itself: The news and the events of the week

For modern-day philosophers contemplating the nature of news, last week provided a gruesome laboratory. News, we must posit first, is not events. It is the way that we react to events.

Last week an explosion strong enough to generate a mushroom cloud ripped apart a Texas town, killing at least 14 and injuring 200 more. Authorities intercepted letters containing a deadly poison, intended for the president of the United States and a U.S. senator from Mississippi. A justice of the peace and his wife were arrested in Texas and charged with three murders which had widely been attributed to a violent prison gang.

Of course, it was none of these stories which were the biggest news of the week, but the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon which killed three people and injured more than 130, and the dramatic manhunt which followed.

Posted inTom Baxter

For simple and fair, state income tax tops the alternatives

Taxes should be simple and fair. You hear that mantra a lot these days, and it has a special power around this time of year. The more I meditate on it, the more my mind is drawn toward the raging irony that the simplest and fairest tax my household pays, the state income tax, is the very one which some seem hell-bent on getting rid of.

Start with simple. Like thousands of Georgians, I use a computer tax preparation program to file our federal and state taxes every year. The federal taxes are a pain, especially since I pay self-employment tax and have to send Uncle Sam a check for estimated taxes four times a year.

But our state income taxes are literally as simple as pushing a button. It takes less than a minute for the program to compute my state tax after the drudgery of calculating the federal income tax is finished. And it’s a pleasant interlude, because this year, like last year and several years before that, we’ve had to write the federal government a check for more money while we’ve received a refund from the state.

Posted inTom Baxter

Why the U.S. Senate race matters to Democrats, win or lose

It’s a fact not much remarked on that the closest thing to a frontrunner we have so far in the squishy-soft field for next year’s U.S. Senate race in Georgia is a Democrat.

There’s good reason no one pays much attention to a couple of polls from February showing former Sen. Max Cleland leading every Republican contender. He’s shown no interest in the race, and even the names being seriously discussed — U.S. Rep. John Barrow and Michelle Nunn — haven’t made any commitments.

And yet there are several reasons why next year’s Senate race may be more important in the long run for the Democrats than the Republicans, win or lose.

Posted inTom Baxter

In Tennessee boundary dispute, a river of lawyers’ fees

Here’s one way to estimate the chances of getting Tennessee to change its mind and give up a thin strip of its existing territory so Georgia can gain access to the water in the Tennessee River.

Right now, the Tennessee legislature is considering a bill that would end party primaries for U.S. Senate nominees, and give the Republican and Democratic legislative delegations the power to choose their respective nominees.

The idea of giving up some of their existing territory for our convenience has so far met with overwhelming resistance in Tennessee. But you figure, if they’re fools enough to go for the idea of giving up the voters’ right to select their U.S. Senate nominees, we just might be able to talk them out of that land without a fight.

Posted inTom Baxter

Ominous signs for rural Georgia as hospitals shut their doors

Jimmy Lewis is a man known for dire predictions.

The CEO of HomeTown Health, which represents more than 50 rural Georgia hospitals, he peppers his regular email messages to his clients with urgent warnings to hoard every penny of cash they can get their hands on, and as a lobbyist his testimony has caused the chair of one committee to complain that he always says the sky is falling.

Ominously, his predictions are starting to come true. Lewis forecast at the beginning of the year that five to six rural hospitals might be forced to close in 2013, and already there have been two. Calhoun Memorial Hospital in Arlington closed in February, and Stewart-Webster Hospital in Richland shut its doors last week.

Posted inTom Baxter

A new way of looking at what makes Georgia’s economy tick

Nearly every discussion about Georgia’s economic future begins at the top, with high-tech companies like Digirad, the medical imaging firm which recently announced it’s relocating its headquarters to Atlanta, or prime industrial plums like the KIA plant in West Point.

But a provocative report by a new group, the Essential Economy Council, argues that the upper tiers of the state’s economy rest on a cluster of low-end economic sectors, not connected to each other in earlier studies, which face severe challenges in the years ahead.

Posted inTom Baxter

What McLuhan might have said about the municipal broadband bill

“The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan wrote five decades ago. There could be no better proof of the lasting relevance of that observation than the way I watched the debate on Georgia’s municipal broadband bill last Thursday night.

I’ve spent countless hours watching legislative debates on the hall monitors at this capitol and others across the South, and countless more watching archived footage on my desktop. But when I picked up a hand-me-down, first-generation iPad to watch this debate at home, it had the force of a revelation. The clarity of the live-streamed images on that device was so much better than what I was accustomed to, that when Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta began calling out by name the legislators who’d spoken against the measure, you could see that his hands were trembling, ever so slightly.

Posted inTom Baxter

A pig squeals in Alabama, and Georgia gets the bacon

There has recently been a dust-up over in Alabama which might have set our ears to ringing here in Georgia, had our ears not already been deafened by the clamor from Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Residential and commercial customers in Alabama pay more for their electricity than those in Georgia, even though the price of the fuel needed to produce the electricity is less there than it is here. According to a recent survey, Alabama Power customers paid $1.5 billion more over a six-year period than they would have if they could have bought the electricity from Georgia Power, even though both companies are owned by Southern Co.

And even though vast reserves of natural gas have been discovered in Alabama while Georgia is still prospecting for its first big strike, customers of the two largest natural gas utilities there are charged two to three times more in operations and maintenance costs than customers in Georgia or Mississippi.

Posted inTom Baxter

The slow, or fast, train to 2014

Stories about the Republican governors’ struggle with accepting the Medicaid expansion often say, as an Associated Press story did this week, that under the Affordable Care Act, “Washington pays the full cost of the expansion for the first three years, gradually phasing down to 90 percent.” This is true, but there is a little more to it, and in political terms that little is large.

To expand the explanation somewhat, from Jan. 1, 2014, to Dec. 31, 2016, the feds will pay the participating states 100 percent of their Medicaid costs. The scale-down begins in 2017 and reaches 90 percent in 2020.

What results from this is somewhat akin to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. To some GOP governors who have been vocally opposed to Obamacare, the train they’re on appears to be moving slowly enough to get through one more qualifying, one more election, maybe even having their portrait hung in the capitol before they’re compelled to concede.

Posted inTom Baxter

Chattanooga: Eating our lunch in liveability

When Atlantans look around for other cities to compare theirs with, they think major league all the way. They measure their growth against Houston and Dallas. They travel to Denver and Seattle to find civic inspiration and worry that Charlotte and Nashville are gaining on them.

But as we contemplate the hotter, wetter future we discussed last week, we might be better off taking a look at Chattanooga.

Yes, Chattanooga. Seldom do we think of our neighbor across the Tennessee line as much of a competitor. When they built an aquarium, we just built a bigger one. But for nearly three decades, since a group of civic leaders got together in 1984 and committed themselves to doing something about Chattanooga’s image as the dirtiest city in America, and in the view of some the dullest, they have been eating our lunch on the playing field of liveability.

Posted inTom Baxter

A future with a lot of ‘Hotlantas’

It’s going to rain, and we’re not just talking about the next couple of days. The news won’t come as much consolation to Georgia farmers struggling through a multi-year drought, but according to the most sophisticated climate model ever attempted for the eastern United States, their problem 44 years from now won’t be lack of rain, but torrential storms and flooding.

And it will be hot, but it may seem hotter in some places than it does in others.

We can begin speculating about such things because of the unprecedented degree of detail in a study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee, Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published in the Nov. 6 edition of Environmental Research Letters.

Posted inTom Baxter

The ethics dilemma: How to get doing right, right

It seems to be a matter of widespread agreement that the best thing about this year’s legislative session is the pace at which it’s clicking along. The General Assembly is on track to adjourn on the earliest date in years, which gives citizen legislators more time to make a living and unnecessary, often bad bills less time to sprout and grow.

So how has this beneficial improvement come to pass? It’s hard not to credit it at least in part to one of the most widely deplored deals in years: the arrangement by which former Senate majority leader Chip Rogers left the legislature to take a job with Georgia Public Broadcasting at a salary of $150,000 — more than the yearly salary of the governors of 40 states, including Georgia. A pretty penny, but it was deemed to be the price of removing the logjam in the state Senate, paving the way for the speedy passage of the hospital bed tax and a short session.