House of Representatives Speaker David Ralston displayed a great deal of vision and commitment to rural Georgia when he formed the Military Affairs and Rural Economic Development Committees. Though seemingly disparate in purpose and scope, they are actually helping the very same communities.

Georgia has the fifth largest military population in America with an economic impact of $20 billion every year. Providing 150,000 jobs and indirectly employing a third of a million Georgians, the military is Georgia’s largest single employer. One in ten Georgians are associated with the military (including 750,000 veterans), and Georgia ranks second highest in volunteers who serve in our armed forces– twice the national average.

With so much at stake, Georgia must remain vigilant as the Pentagon is requesting another round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) hearings.

Since 1988, the military has closed 350 bases in five different BRACs. The military was slashed even further in 2011 because of sequestration, reducing the size of the Army to pre-WWII levels, the Navy to pre-WWI levels, and the Air Force to the smallest it has ever been. As the Pentagon has 20 percent excess capacity and has been ordered to cut $1.2 trillion in a few short years, it has been forced to depopulate bases (ie: a “Stealth BRAC”) even as we speak. This happened to Columbus last year when it lost $400 million of economic impact — every year for the foreseeable future — due to some of their soldiers at Fort Benning being elsewhere.

The economic risks are very real, especially as our military-rich rival states spend millions of dollars every year to protect their installations. In fact, half of all states budget over a million dollars annually on commissions to protect their bases. This puts Georgia in a tight spot, as these rival states have much deeper pockets than we have. (The overall state budgets of North Carolina and Virginia are twice that of Georgia, while Texas and Florida are four times our size, and California is a whopping seven times larger.)

Exacerbating the problem is K-12 education, which senior military officials say is their number one priority. “If communities do not offer soldier’s children a consistently high-quality education,” they state, “they risk the economic challenges that result from losing support of a major employer.” Unfortunately, compared to those other military-rich states, Georgia ranks near the bottom.

In the past, Georgia was blessed with legislative giants who protected our military bases. The late U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell was considered the second most important man in Washington for 20 years. The late, longtime U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson, recognized as the “father of the two-ocean navy” and nicknamed “The Admiral,” is one of only two non-presidents to have a supercarrier named after him. President Jimmy Carter, a Naval Academy graduate and a submarine officer, greatly expanded Naval Submarine Base King’s Bay. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich both saved a number of Georgia’s military installations. The efforts of the past giants grew and preserved Georgia’s military bases to the point where the 10th largest state had the 5th highest military population.

That all changed, however, in the 2005 BRAC when Georgia lost four (a third) of our military installations. Since then, we’ve entered into a new reality in which we can no longer rely on political stalwarts to protect our installations.

All of Georgia’s bases (except Dobbins) are located deep in the heart of south rural Georgia. These bases, according to research done by the Georgia Chamber, are some of the only economic “bright spots” left in those areas. Thus, the loss of any of those bases would be catastrophic to an area where poverty is already high.

The Military Affairs committee I chair has worked on the problem for two years, passing 12 new initiatives to make Georgia more competitive. Georgia’s universities and technical colleges are also helping, winning a plethora of military-friendly awards. (Both Savannah Tech and the University of Georgia are ranked No. 1 in the nation, for example.) The University of North Georgia (the Military College of Georgia) has an excellent reputation in the Army, beating rival military schools like Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel in almost every recent competition. ABAC offers a generous endowment for veterans, and a whopping 10 percent of Georgia Southern’s students are veterans. Georgia Tech is sporting an amazing new apprenticeship (VET2) program for veterans, UGA is creating a new counseling program to help with PTSD and Augusta University is joining the National Security Agency and the Army’s new Cyber Command at Fort Gordon to improve our nation’s cybersecurity.

We show our appreciation for the military in many ways, applauding them at football games and ceremonies and parades. But if we want to keep the economic prosperity our bases provide to Georgia – especially rural Georgia – we must improve the value of our installations. The consequences should we fail would be devastating to a region of our state which is already struggling.

State Rep. Dave Belton is a Republican from Buckhead (Morgan County).

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