State Representative Jon Burns (R-District 159) of Newington, Georgia, in Effingham County is not new to the State House, having joined the body in 2005; nor is he new to leadership, having served as the GOP House Majority Leader since 2015. But he is new to the office of speaker, arguably the second most powerful elected position in state government, and he will be bringing a slightly new approach to wielding that big gavel.
Burns was a close friend and confidante of the prior speaker, David Ralston, and will be retaining much of his office staff, demeanor, and decorum in the well of running the chamber with an eye toward bettering the lives of all Georgians. This helps explain his selection as speaker by a unanimous vote of acclimation on the first day of this legislative session, while our speaker in the U.S. Congress squeaked into office by one vote on the 15th ballot.
Burns is also a farmer and small businessman, very successful and visible within the timber industry in southeast Georgia, and in the words of his peers in the House and elsewhere he is a “classic conservative.”
From Dan Snipes, a Statesboro attorney who has worked previously with Burns, “He doesn’t have an extreme bone in his body. He is a principled, classic conservative.”
Burns is inheriting this gavel following the sudden and unexpected death of a dear friend, but the state and the State House are in otherwise good stead. A budget surplus of more than $6 billion is being sifted through and divvied up first – more reserves, some big-ticket one-time expenses, and another pay raise for educators, and most other state employees. There are fissures within the Georgia GOP, but they have a very comfortable majority and almost all are at least on speaking terms.
When Ralston followed the first GOP speaker since Reconstruction, who was leaving the office in a cloud of building scandals, the economy was in the midst of a deep recession and budget cuts were the order of the day. The GOP’s ability to govern was in question and Ralston brought transparency, an open ear, common sense, some occasionally centrist sensibilities, and would go on to lead as the second longest-serving speaker in Georgia history.
Burns is aware of the large shoes of his friend, but he also believes that leading such a large and diverse group of 180, and two very different political parties, requires a lot of listening.
Asked about his priorities for the session at a first week briefing with members of the Capitol Press Corps, Burns explained that he is still hearing from his committee chairs, caucus members as well as the other side of the aisle, on what they consider to be the most pressing needs for this assembly. He explained that he likes to gather his team and interested parties and build consensus around the table, and then the group has an agenda and priority order for proceeding.
Ralston inherited a house in disarray and in need of a strong, steady hand. The house coming to Burns has been sailing pretty smoothly for several years, and an even more inclusive style of leadership may be just right for the times ahead. Burns has already restructured the way that the house handles health care issues by creating another committee, chair, and structure to coordinate and plan together, as health care costs, particularly Medicaid, are one of the fastest-growing drivers of the budget of state government.
The honeymoon will be brief, and many other house leaders of substance have chosen to retire in recent years. Burns will be able to make his own mark and imprint. The affable timber farmer has a disarming charm, as well as the friendly ear already mentioned. One of the larger challenges may be redefining the relationship with the State Senate, which now has its own new presiding officer and lieutenant governor, but that is a column for another day.
Speaker Burns will continue to advance the house “culture of life” for the people of Georgia. Like his several thousand acres of timber, I think those roots will continue to deepen, and that growth will continue to reach for the sky.
Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at firstname.lastname@example.org.