Bill Hitchens had a conversation with a fellow state lawmaker earlier this year, not long before the Republican members of the House of Representatives met to choose a new majority leader.
The other legislator announced his intention to run for the job and was trying to curry Hitchens’ support. Hitchens told him he’d back him but inquired who else might be up for the job. The reply was another representative from Hitchens’ neck of the woods — Jon Burns.
The second-term Hitchens quickly answered Allen Peake that he couldn’t support his candidacy — he was throwing his support behind Burns.
Burns, now in his sixth term in the state House, was the beneficiary of more support and praise Thursday at the Effingham Chamber of Commerce and Industrial Development Authority offices, the site of a reception in his honor for being chosen the House majority leader May 11.
“He’s a person people can talk to,” Hitchens said of Burns. “Everybody looks to him with different issues and they come to with different problems with legislation. You like to have someone easy to talk to and will keep some discretion about what your conversation might entail.”
While Burns may not call attention to himself and what he does at the Capitol, his accomplishments and penchant for getting things done does get notice, according to state Sen. Jack Hill.
“There are people in Atlanta, you get between them and a microphone, you could get hurt,” said Hill, the longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Jon thinks about what he says before he says it. And he thinks two or three steps ahead and two or three layers below everybody else. It’s no great surprise when he succeeds. He’s got great interpersonal skills.”
Effingham IDA CEO John Henry also took notice of Burns’ influence.
“Leader has always been a part of his reputation,” he said, “and now it’s a part of his official title.”
Former state Rep. Herb Jones was the House minority leader when the number of Republicans in the chamber could be counted on two hands, instead of the 117 in the 180-person body.
“I think he would make a great majority leader because of his character and his integrity, not because of his politics,” Jones said. “He is always prepared. He does his homework. And he doesn’t play the political game.”
Burns said that during his time as the Chamber of Commerce president, he learned from Jones, who was then the executive director.
“I can’t say enough about my mentor,” Burns noted.
He also credited his early years in the Chamber for allowing him to build the skills he uses under the Gold Dome.
“The Chamber gave me an opportunity to get involved and be an even bigger part of the community and to serve in a leadership capacity and to cut my teeth,” Burns said.
The House Republican Caucus voted to have Burns replace Larry O’Neal, the longtime Warner Robins lawmaker who retired to become the judge of the state tax tribunal. Behind the scenes, Burns pushed for the passage of HB 170, the measure that turned the state’s motor fuel tax to an excise tax. The new law has been a welcome addition to the state’s transportation funding, according to state transportation board member Ann Purcell.
“Right now, we’re already seeing some of that money funneling back into Effingham County, and we’re very grateful for that,” she said.
Jones pointed out that when Burns goes to talk to somebody at the Capitol about an issue, “it’s something that should be done.”
“If it’s the right thing to do, he just goes ahead and he’s usually very successful,” Hill added. “He’s built a great record.”
Burns’ elevation in the GOP leadership ranks also bodes well for the southern portion of the state, Hitchens said. Speaker of the House David Ralston, also chosen by the members, is from north Georgia. The governor and lieutenant governor are from the Gainesville area. Speaker pro tem Jan Jones is from suburban Atlanta, and majority whip Matt Ramsey is from Peachtree City, just south of Atlanta.
“You don’t have an expert in geography or demographics to understand that south Georgia is under-represented in population and therefore under-represented in the Legislature,” he said. “There aren’t many people from south Georgia in positions of authority anymore.”
Burns asked those who turned out to think of the late Phillip Heidt, who was a close a friend.
“He loved this county,” he said. “He was a good friend and when I think of this Chamber, I think of Phillip Heidt and the leadership he provided. He loved this county and wanted to see the best for it. We certainly miss him.”
As for Burns, he is embodiment of Effingham’s traits and ethos, in Hill’s estimation.
“It’s the Effingham County water and soil and education that does it, I think,” he said. “It just shows you those qualities he carried to Atlanta he learned here, the quality of hard work and a good sense of humor and caring about others. All of these things are qualities the people of
Effingham County have and he represents in my mind the best Effingham County has to offer.
“Nobody outworks him,” Hill continued. “He’s just about the hardest-working fellow I know. Our state is going to be better off for his service.”