Don’t let the funding myth mislead Macon County

A rural TV station trips over a bad fact and misses a chance to praise its home county.

by Elena Lavarreda, May 25, 2010

The unfortunate and inaccurate article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that we blogged about several weeks ago has claimed another victim. Like WALB-TV, in Calhoun County Georgia, Channel 41 WMGT, in Macon County Georgia, has fallen for the same misleading arguments. The irony is that both of these counties already reject the Census Bureau’s prison counts for internal county districting. In practice, they are leaders, not opponents, of Census reform.

The WMGT piece repeats the same misguided funding based arguments that both WALB-TV and The AJC make.

Macon County leaders knew when Macon State Prison was built in 1993, it would boost the local economy bringing in almost 400 jobs. One perk they didn’t think about—a boost in population for census data. Population counts from the U.S Census help determine how $400 billion in federal money is spent each year on road projects, schools, hospitals and more.

Peter elaborates on why this funding argument for counting the prisoners at the prison location is just wrong. In the blog post he wrote in response to the AJC story, he states:

Actually, much of the so-called “population-based” aid is not distributed directly to local areas, and most government aid formulas are too sophisticated to be fooled by where people in prison are counted. Medicaid reimbursements and federal highway finds are block grants to states, so it doesn’t matter where in a state a prisoner is counted as long as he is counted in the correct state.

In short, Macon County is not getting rich from the Census Bureau’s prison count.

Unfortunately, this “bad news” story about Macon County merely distracts from the potential “good news” story for this rural county—the fact that Macon County already takes the prisoners out of their districts!

Similar to Calhoun County, Macon County is actually the “good guy” in the Census story. They accepted a prison in their county, for the perceived jobs benefits, but they drew local governmental districts without regard to the prison populations. They instead looked to state law, which says that a prison is not a residence and ignored the prison population when drawing county and city districts. Macon chose not to draw a district that was 25% prisoners. The state should be so enlightened.

With the next round of redistricting on the horizon, this type of action needs to be encouraged. The issue is particularly critical in Macon County because in 2000 the Census made a mistake and only counted half the state prison—if Macon decided to include the prisoners this time the harm to democracy would be twice as large.

Macon County will be faced with a tough question: Should the people who live next to the Macon State Prison have twice as much influence over the future of the county as people who live in other parts of the county? I hope that Macon will again so “No”, but this funding myth runs the risk of undoing the good work that Macon has already done.

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