Updated Tuesday at 3:37 p.m.
The chairman of the powerful Georgia House Rules Committee has died after collapsing at a retreat for lawmakers.
State Rep. Jay Powell died after collapsing at a Republican caucus leadership event Monday night at the Brasstown Valley Resort in Young Harris, according to House Speaker David Ralston.
The Towns County Sheriff’s Office requested that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation look into the death, according to GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles.
“We should have more information available following an autopsy,” she said.
Powell, 67, was an attorney from Camilla in southwest Georgia. He had served in the state House since 2009 and before that served as Mayor of Camilla for 12 years.
“His loss is devastating to the state of Georgia,” Gov. Brian Kemp said in a statement.
In his role on the Rules Committee, Powell helped decide which bills came up for a vote in the House. He had recently replaced former state Rep. John Meadows in the role after Meadows died of stomach cancer last November.
Powell succeeded former state Rep. Richard Royal in the House, and the two remained friends.
“He was a very intelligent person,” Royal said of Powell. “His perception of where the state of Georgia should go to become better was uncanny. I just can’t stress enough the intelligence he brought to the office of state representative.
“We were like family, and I feel like I’ve lost a family member.”
‘A Real Blow’
Powell was known as a champion of rural Georgia.
“Rural Georgia is going to suffer in his absence,” said Neill Herring, a longtime environmental lobbyist who worked with Powell for years.
“This is a real blow to a lot of the state in terms of competing with metro for state support and state funding.”
House Speaker Ralston said Powell served with “integrity, and his leadership truly moved Georgia forward.”
“His personal and political skills were just exceptional in every way,” Herring said. “If he said he was going to do something…he did it. He was not an equivocator.”
Other officials agreed.
“You could take whatever Jay said to the bank,” Flint Riverkeeper Gordon Rogers said. “You might not like what he said, but there was never any subterfuge. There’s maneuvering in the House and Senate, but a maneuver is one thing, and subterfuge is something else entirely.”
Rogers and Herring worked with Powell on much water protection legislation and one major outstanding issue: trust funds.
Currently, tens of millions of dollars collected by the state through small fees on things like new tires, prepaid cell phones and police fines, but they aren’t required to be spent where taxpayers are told they will be spent. After several attempts to change it, Powell decided it needed a constitutional amendment, which he introduced. It’s currently caught between the House and the Senate and will likely be addressed in the next session in January.
“He’s been a real hero in this putting back the trust in trust funds issue,” Rogers said. “That was his bill, and it’s an active bill. And I hope there are people that will pick up that flag and move it forward.
“We’ll all muddle through somehow, but he was a true hero on that issue. And out in front.”
Why was this important for Powell? Herring cited his local government experience that Powell saw firsthand how state trust funds to reimburse municipalities for things like cleaning up landfills weren’t available because the legislature had spent the money elsewhere.
Other tributes have poured in from both sides of the aisle.
“Though Chairman Jay Powell and I stood on separate sides of the aisle, we worked together to advance good tax policy for Georgia and to support our local governments,” said Stacey Abrams, former House minority leader. “He cared about community and getting good done.”
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican who previously served in the state House, said it’s not just Georgia that will feel the loss.
“Today is a sad day for the state of Georgia and a very hard day for me personally,” Collins said in a statement. “Jay always had my back even through the storms of politics, which means more than anything. He helped me as a new attorney and provided wise counsel over the years regarding our public service.”
Rep. Karen Bennett, a Democrat and chair of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, said, “As a caucus, we want to send our thoughts and prayers to his family, friends, constituents and all who were blessed to have Rep. Powell in their life. I appreciate his devotion to public service and dedication to all of Georgia. He will be missed.”
Powell was also known for his sense of humor, even in the most tense of committee meetings.
“He could tell people no and make them like it,” as Royal put it.
Rogers echoed that.
“You’ve got to find some humor in life, or you’re sort of stuck in the mud,” Rogers said of Powell. “I’m going to miss him. I really am.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.