The South rises again!
Georgia—the Peach State—slices up the competition in the 2014 America's Top States for Business rankings by CNBC, signaling an apparent shift back to the Sun Belt from the energy-rich Northern Plains.
Always a contender, Georgia outdid itself in 2014.
The state scores a solid 1,659 points out of a possible 2,500, finishing at or near the top in three categories and in the top half in all but two. Since we began rating the states for competitiveness in 2007, Georgia has never finished outside the top 10 overall, with fourth-place finishes in 2007 and 2011, and a respectable eighth place in 2013.
Each year, our Top States study rates all 50 states on more than 50 metrics in 10 categories of competitiveness. We weight the categories based on how frequently they appear as selling points in state economic development marketing materials. That way, we hold the states to their own standards. You can read more about our methodology here.
This year's categories and point totals are:
The Georgia workforce is tops in the nation, with an abundant supply of educated, largely nonunion workers. But that's not new—it's Georgia's third straight year atop our Workforce category.
The big changes for Georgia in 2014 are economic. While overall growth trails the national recovery, and the unemployment rate has remained stubbornly above the national average, our study looks to the future. Georgia's solid job growth and rebounding housing market help it jump to third place in our Economy category.
That strength, in turn, helps Georgia rise to the top of our Infrastructure category. While the commute in metro Atlanta is as maddening as ever, roads and bridges are in the top tier nationally. In addition, the port of Savannah had a record year last year, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport just marked its 16th straight year as the world's busiest. Also helping Georgia in the category are marked improvements in its drinking water, including a $90 million upgrade just completed in Cobb County, northwest of Atlanta.
But as any Georgian knows, every peach has its pit.
Georgia's worst categories are Quality of Life and Education, finishing 32nd in both.
Read MoreAmerica's top states for innovation
Poor health hurts Georgia's quality of life. Twenty-nine percent of Georgians are obese, and more than 19 percent lack health insurance. Poor air quality doesn't help in the category, either. And in education, local school districts as well as colleges and universities are still struggling with budget cuts.
For a second straight year, Texas is our runner-up. But the Lone Star State is second to none for consistently solid performance. Texas has never finished lower than second. It was our top state in 2008, 2010 and 2012. And this year's Texas total of 1,641 points is the state's best ever.
In his last year as governor and with a possible eye toward the White House in 2016, Rick Perry has been amping up his campaign to attract business and jobs, traveling to rival states and running expensive TV and radio ads.
It seems to be working.
Texas has added more than 300,000 jobs in the last year. While economic growth slowed a bit in 2013, Texas remains in the top tier. Add a diverse stable of industries and a sterling credit rating, and Texas dominates our Economy category. But that's just the start. Texas ties Georgia for America's top seat in the Infrastructure category; it comes in second (behind California) for Technology & Innovation and fifth for Access to Capital.
Utah repeats at No. 3 this year, logging top 10 finishes in Economy and Business Friendliness and tying for first place (with California and Colorado) in Access to Capital, a category we've tweaked this year to include traditional lending along with venture capital.
The only northern state in our top five is Nebraska, which repeats last year's fourth-place finish. The Cornhusker State is the 10th-cheapest state to do business in. It also finishes in the top 10 for Quality of Life and Business Friendliness.
Read MoreBest states for small business
Rounding out the top five is North Carolina. The Tar Heel State offers an abundant and growing workforce. Its economy, which has struggled in recent years, is finally revving up again, outpacing the national recovery. And the state is adding jobs at a rapid clip.
Notice something missing from our top five this year?
For the first time in three years it does not include North Dakota, which falls to 10th place overall from third last year and fifth in 2012. That is despite the fact that North Dakota's oil boom—now in its ninth year—shows no signs of letting up. In fact, that may be the problem.
Growing pains are taking a toll on the Peace Garden State. Rental costs for industrial space are among the nation's highest. Utility costs are creeping up as well. North Dakota drops to 22nd place from 12th last year in our all-important Cost of Doing Business category. And while North Dakota still has the fastest-growing state economy, the housing market is showing the strain of trying to keep up. That, and the fact that North Dakota's economy is so heavily dependent on a single industry, pushes last year's second-ranked Economy category to seventh this year.
The Mount Rushmore State is not nearly as reliant on energy production as its northern neighbor. But it is feeling some of the same effects of the region's growth. Last year's Least Expensive State for Business drops five spots in the category. And the state falls to 20th from sixth in the Economy category. As a result, South Dakota falls to 11th overall. It's the first time in the history of our study that a top state one year has fallen all the way out of the top 10 the next year.
Another first in 2014: The first top five that does not include Virginia.
The Old Dominion was our inaugural Top State for Business in 2007; it took top honors again in 2009 and 2011. This year Virginia drops to an eighth-place tie with Colorado. In the past, Virginia benefited from its proximity to the nation's capital. In recent years, Washington gridlock has turned that blessing into a curse. While the Commonwealth improves this year in Cost of Doing Business and finishes in the top 10 for Technology & Innovation, it slips to 29th from 10th in the Economy category.
This year's most-improved state is Nevada, which jumps to 29th from a lowly 47th last year. While it is true the Silver State did not have many ways to go but up—and it is still in the bottom half of the states—Nevada's recovery is taking hold. On a percentage basis, the state trails only North Dakota for year-over-year job growth. And Nevada's housing market, battered so badly in the recession, is showing some real signs of life.
Montana records the biggest decline this year, tumbling 15 spots to 33rd place overall. In another sign that the boom in the Great Plains and the Mountain West may be quieting down, it's the economy that has Big Sky Country falling. While unemployment is well below the national average in Montana, job growth has slowed to a trickle. And Montana is one of the few states where foreclosures are rising.
You can't have top states without having bottom states, and this year's crop includes many of the usual suspects. Connecticut, which comes in 46th, has the fourth-highest cost of doing business, the third-highest cost of living and the nation's second-worst economy; only Alaska's is worse.
Not only does the Last Frontier have the last-place economy—the only state whose economy shrank last year—it is also the fifth-most-expensive state to live in. Alaska had been improving its cost of doing business in recent years, but it slipped in that category in 2014, sliding back into our bottom five at 47th overall.
West Virginia is mired at 48th, its same ranking as last year. The Mountain State finishes last for Business Friendliness, tied for last in Access to Capital and 48th for Technology & Innovation.
Hawaii finishes 49th overall, which matches the Aloha State's rankings in our Cost of Doing Business, Workforce and Cost of Living categories. But Hawaii does improve on last year's last-place overall ranking. And it still has the best quality of life.
This year's Bottom State for Business is Rhode Island. The Ocean State has never finished higher than 48th in our rankings. A high-tax state with some of the steepest utility costs in the country, Rhode Island's fiscal woes are persistent, hindering its ability to improve one of the nation's worst infrastructures. Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in America and finishes 45th for Business Friendliness.
But perhaps proving that our America's Top States for Business study gives every state something to strive for, Rhode Island shows marked improvement this year in Education and Technology & Innovation. And while Rhode Island is no Hawaii, it does come in a respectable 19th for Quality of Life.
—By CNBC's Scott Cohn