SPRINGFIELD — The ears that listened to Rep. Bill Hitchens’ address in the Effingham County High School media center on Dec. 14 were considerably younger and perhaps more attentive than usual.
Hitchens spoke to a group of about 35 people, including several members of the Georgia Secretary of State’s Student Ambassadors Program. The program is designed for 10th-12th graders to engage as leaders in their school and community.
Student Ambassadors frequently encourage voter registration and volunteerism among their peers. Some serve as pages in Atlanta during the legislative session.
Hitchens, who represents District 161, relished the chance to talk to students interested in local and state affairs.
“I always appreciate the opportunity to come and speak like this,” he said. “I’ve done it many, many times — not to a group like this but, typically, to a classroom environment without the news media here.”
Hitchens was invited by Student Ambassador Senior Leader Ethan Crabtree. The other Student Ambassadors are Rett Heller (Senior Leader), April Moss (Senior Leader), Kate Alexander, Madelynne Ridgley-Thornton, Levi Thomas, Nathan Hayes, Abby Hunter and Kendall Wilkes.
After warning the students that not all media outlets can be trusted to stick strictly to the facts of a story, Hitchens shared his personal history.
Hitchens was a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War (1965-69) and became a trooper with the Georgia State Patrol. He retired from the Georgia State Patrol in 1997 after serving it for 28 years. He also served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve from 1976-2001.
In 2002, Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed Hitchens, a Georgia Southern College graduate, to head the Georgia Office of Homeland Security. He held that post from 2003-05.
Perdue nominated Hitchens to be the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety and colonel of the Georgia State Patrol in 2004. The Georgia Board of Public Safety unanimously approved the appointment and Hitchens remained in that position until 2012.
In his last two jobs, Hitchens grew familiar with the state legislature, its members and its processes. He never dreamed he would become a lawmaker, however.
Hitchens, 74, said he was urged to run by former Rep. Ann R. Purcell, who served the district for 18 years before moving to the Georgia Transportation Board. Purcell enlisted some heavy political hitters, including Speaker David Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal, to persuade the reluctant Hitchens to give it a shot.
In the 2012 Republican primary, Hitchens garnered 76 percent of the vote. He had no general election opposition that year and has been opposed just once in the four subsequent elections.
Hitchens was immediately placed on the Appropriations Committee, making him just the third legislator in Georgia history to receive that nod in his or her first term.
“Whoever controls the money has a lot of power and control,” Hitchens said. “I’ve been on Appropriations Committee ever since.”
Hitchens noted that there are six Appropriations subcommittees. He is the chairman of the one that deals with the state’s courts and other agencies in the criminal justice system.
In addition, Hitchens has served as the chairman of the Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, and the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
“There are 180 people in the House (of Representatives) and there are only 35 chairmen so — in 10 years — I’ve had more than my pro rata share of chairmanships,” he said. "I’m indebted to the people on the committee who appoint the chairman and believe that I’ve done things worthwhile.”
Hitchens said the legislature, unfortunately, is filled primarily by wealthy people.
“Every time I’ve had to run, it cost me $70,000,” he said. “The first time I ran, my wife said, ‘You spent $70,000 to get a $17,000 -a-year job? That’s not very smart.’
“Fortunately, for me, the speaker and governor were helping me (raise money) and I only had to spend $7,000 out of my own pocket. When you win, people will give you money but, if you lose, it’s on you.
“That makes it hard for somebody to just come out of the community and run unless they have money.”
Hitchens said House candidates in the Atlanta area frequently spend $200,000 or more.
“I know one guy who has got over a million dollars in his campaign,” Hitchens said.
In addition to being wealthy, legislators are frequently retirees or business owners who can set their own schedule.
“Who can go to Atlanta for three months and take off their job? It’s unheard of,” Hitchens said. “If you work a regular job, you can’t just walk off for three months (during the legislative session in January-March).”
Hitchens said business owners and professionals are often motivated to run by a desire to pass legislation that will advance their interests.
Activists also run occasionally, he added.
“Some of them are a little scary,” he said. “To be honest, I’m not sure they are for good government. I’ve always appreciated average citizens who just run because they want to do things right.
“There aren’t very many of them, though. I can tell you that.”
Only about one out of every 12 bills that are introduced each year will become law, Hitchens said. He explained the give-and-take process that occurs between the House and Senate before a bill is finalized and sent to the governor’s desk. Even then, the governor can kill a bill with a veto.
“Typically, I carry only one, two or three bills a year because nobody understands how difficult it is,” Hitchens said.
Hitchens eventually opened the floor to questions and broached the concept of federalism. He also discussed how local, state and federal governments interact.
In the middle of his speech that lasted just over an hour, Hitchens told the audience that a lawmaker’s work doesn’t conclude when the legislative session ends each year.
“If I was leaving (office), I would advocate for people who follow me (to get a raise),” he said. “The job pays $17,000 a year. Everybody says you work three months a year and you shouldn’t make that much but I do this everyday.”
Hitchens said the primary reward for him is helping people.