ATLANTA — A powerful Georgia lawmaker who held major sway over the state’s tax policies for years died suddenly at a leadership retreat in north Georgia.
Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla who was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2008, collapsed during a caucus meeting Monday night at Brasstown Valley Resort. He was 67.
House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, sent a letter to House members Tuesday morning to break the news.
“I know this loss touches us all and leaves a hole in our hearts and in the heart of our House family,” Ralston wrote. “Jay Powell served with integrity and his leadership truly moved Georgia forward.”
The south Georgia lawmaker’s sudden passing left his colleagues shocked and triggered an outpouring of tributes from both sides of the aisle, from Georgia leaders as varied as Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams.
“Shaken and saddened by this news,” current House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said on Twitter. “Words cannot convey the immense respect I have for Chairman Jay Powell. He served with honesty, integrity, intelligence, & a fierce independence.” The Democrat also noted Powell’s “keen, wry sense of humor with an infectious laugh.”
Powell’s death also leaves a huge void in the House going into the new legislative session that starts in January, marking the second consecutive year that lawmakers will return to the Gold Dome to a new chairman of the House Rules Committee. Without the Rules chairman’s support, a bill has little chance of making it to the House floor for a vote.
Aside from his brief time at the helm of the Rules Committee, Powell is likely best known for his work shaping the state’s tax policies as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and for efforts to spur economic growth in rural Georgia.
“I don’t know how you fill his place. We don’t have another Jay Powell,” said Rep. Terry England, who co-chaired the council with Powell.
The Auburn Republican said he knew his counterpart was most proud of his work focused on rural Georgia over the last few years, whether it was a bill opening new doors for rural broadband or something as simple as a phone call to agency head.
Powell pushed aggressively for a proposal to modernize the state’s tax structure by sticking a tax on streaming services, music and other untaxed digital products while lowering the tax on traditional technologies, like land lines. He pitched this as a way to pay for expanding broadband in Georgia’s underserved rural communities.
He also regularly advocated for flattening the state’s income tax, and yet he was a cautious voice in the 2017 debate over how to trim the state’s income tax rate in the wake of the new federal tax law without creating a spending deficit.
As a co-chair of the influential House Rural Development Council, he shepherded through numerous policies aimed at improving local economies across rural Georgia. One hard-fought win freed electric co-ops to provide broadband service. Some of his ideas floundered, though, like one that would award a tax break to people willing to relocate to rural areas.
Rep. Sam Watson, a Moultrie Republican who now co-chairs the council, said he saw Powell at a local event Thursday and was planning to meet with him next week to hash out new strategies for the council to pursue.
“I think everybody is just really shocked,” Watson said in an interview Tuesday. Watson shared Colquitt County with Powell and said he saw Powell as a mentor, describing him as “one of the most altruistic legislators I’ve ever known.”
“He worked hard for the people of Georgia. He worked especially hard for the people of rural south Georgia,” Watson said. “He didn’t care about who got the glory. He just wanted to do what was right and what was best for everybody.”
Born and raised in Quitman, the Camilla attorney and former mayor was also perennial sponsor of measures that would constitutionally dedicate revenues raised for specific purposes – like the scrap tire fee proceeds that are supposed to go toward environmentally clean-up efforts.
And he was a surprising vote against this year’s controversial anti-abortion bill, partly because of concerns over the ramifications of establishing “personhood” at six weeks and creating an income tax deduction for expectant parents. Powell also said he felt the bill had been rushed through the legislative process.