Georgia’s lieutenant governor announced Monday that Republican state Sen. Jack Hill has died.
Hill, of Reidsville, was the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls legislation involving how tax dollars are spent. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan announced the 75-year-old Hill’s death in a statement.
Tattnall County Sheriff Kyle Sapp told The Associated Press that Hill was found “in his chair slumped over” at his office in Reidsville on Monday afternoon. Sapp said that Hill’s cause of death was not immediately available but that neither the coronavirus nor foul play are suspected.
The coronavirus outbreak has sickened several other members of the Georgia Senate.
Hill was first elected to the state Senate in 1990 as a Democrat and was serving his 15th term in the chamber. He switched parties in 2002. He became appropriations chairman in 2003.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp honored Hill on Twitter on Monday evening.
“Georgia lost a gentle giant today. Jack Hill was one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I ever served with,” Kemp wrote. “His loss is devastating to our state, but he leaves behind an unmatched legacy of hard work & public service.”
Hill’s state Senate District 4 includes Bulloch, Candler, Effingham, Evans and parts of Emanuel and Tattnall counties in southeast Georgia.
Hill was a longtime Democrat who didn’t switch to the Republican Party until relatively late in Georgia’s transition to GOP rule. He didn’t cross the aisle until his former roommate Sonny Perdue was elected as Georgia’s first Republican governor in 130 years. He was one of four Democrats who flipped in 2002 to give control of the upper chamber to the GOP. Perdue switched to the Republican Party in 1998 while Senate President Pro Tem, and his departure sent shockwaves through the state political establishment.
Hill roomed with Perdue from 1992 until Perdue left the state Senate in 2001 to run for governor. Hill in 2004 told the Florida Times-Union that he switched parties because he was a “team player” and wanted to support Perdue in the same way he had worked with Roy Barnes and Zell Miller when they were governors.
“The fact that he was going to be in a different party really gave me pause,” Hill said in 2004. “So I guess I had a change of mind overnight.”
Hill only switched after other party changers had given Republicans a majority, effectively neutering Democratic Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor. At the time, the House remained under Democratic control. But Hill was part of a sorting which left rural white-majority districts overwhelmingly in Republican hands, with Democrats dominated by African Americans and urban white liberals.
Eric Johnson was the state Senate’s Republican leader in late 2002 when he and Gov.-elect Perdue coaxed Hill and the other conservative Democrats to switch parties.
Johnson said Hill was a “class act” and a “fiscal conservative with a heart” who never stooped to partisan name-calling and worked hard to win over bipartisan support for state budgets.
“He would go out of his way to make sure that everybody had a reason to vote for the budget,” Johnson said. “To the extent there was revenue to be spent, he was going to spend it in the best way possible for the state, regardless of whether it was rural or urban, or education or transit. And you could not disagree with him when he made his case.”
Hill could be sphinxlike at times, but wrote periodic columns that he posted online that were key reading for capitol insiders.
Hill chaired the Senate Higher Education Committee before ascending to lead the Appropriations Committee, a year-round role that made him one of the most powerful men in Georgia, hammering out a budget that currently spends $26 billion in state tax money and billions more in federal money.
Hill was in the midst of writing a 2021 budget for the year beginning July 1. The budget promises to be difficult, with lawmakers having to make predictions about state revenue and spending needs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is causing rapidly increasing unemployment and an expected decline in state revenues at the same time health and emergency spending is soaring.
“It’s going to be reminiscent of the budgets in the recession,” Hill said late last month. Those spending plans saw deep cuts, with many services saved from total elimination only by infusions of federal aid.
When he came to the Senate nearly three decades ago, Hill ran a small grocery store in Reidsville, west of Savannah.
Years Of Work Praised
Tributes for Hill from both sides of the aisle note his compassion for all Georgians and his dedication to public service.
Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller said “compassion beyond measure” was part of what made Hill so skilled at putting together the state budget year after year.
“Always caring for those who were less fortunate. Always caring for those who could not provide for themselves,” Miller said.
“The institutional knowledge and the steady hand in the budget process and the ability to work with the House and the governor’s office to develop a budget was just an unbelievable process.”
It’s still not fully clear how the state budget will be impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but Miller asserted Georgia will “definitely benefit” from his expertise even in the crisis, as Hill was already working on it. He was “leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else” regarding the budget, Miller said.
State Sen. Steve Gooch said moving forward without Hill is going to be difficult, particularly as it regards the state budget.
“Honestly it’s going to be probably one of the toughest positions to fill in the entire Senate because it impacts every part of state government and local governments, too,” he said.
“When he spoke you would listen because you wanted to hear what he had to say. His knowledge and experience was just unbelievable, being in the Senate for so long.”
Hill was found dead at his desk, Gooch said, with the state budget papers in front of him.
“He was literally working for the people up to the very last breath. That’s just the way Jack was. He would always give with 110% of anything he did. He loved his job, and he loved serving people.”