England, longtime Georgia House budget leader, won’t seek reelection

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, one of the most influential and hardest-working members of the General Assembly, told colleagues Thursday that he won’t seek another term.

England, a Republican from Auburn, has represented Barrow County — the county he grew up in — since 2005. He’s served as head of the committee that writes the $30 billion state budget for 12 years, helping guide the government through the aftermath of the Great Recession and, for the past two years, through the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, England said he’s served in the state House twice as long as he expected.

When asked why he was giving up his seat, England said: “A lot of it is just the amount of time it takes to do the job and takes to try to do it right. Through this entire pandemic, it has been nonstop. I just realized I am getting tired. I don’t know any other way to put it.”

State lawmakers are paid $17,340 a year and receive an allowance the days they are in session or doing committee work. While it’s considered a part-time job, some positions, such as budget chairman, can become nearly full time, particularly during the economic ups and downs of a recession or pandemic.

“I have often said that other than being the speaker, the Appropriations chairman puts in more time during the interim (between sessions) than anyone else,” said House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I am going to miss him bad.”

The state budget pays to educate more than 2 million children; provide health care to more than 2 million Georgians; manage and improve parks; investigate crimes and incarcerate criminals; and regulate insurance firms, utilities and dozens of professions.

The state is a major provider of treatment for mental health and drug addiction, and it helps fund public health programs that are fighting the pandemic.

Besides paying salaries, it helps make sure that hundreds of thousands of former teachers, university staffers and state employees receive pensions and health care.

England was a supporter of Ralston’s bid to become speaker in 2009, and he was rewarded with what is considered one of the plum positions at the Capitol.

“I always believed the speaker needed someone he completely trusted in that position, that he could talk with very openly and would be honest with the advice he gave,” Ralston said. “Terry was on a mission from day one. His work ethic is unparalleled.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

When England took over, the state was still reeling from the Great Recession, and his mission during his early years was to find ways to further cut what was already a pared down budget.

When the pandemic hit Georgia in March 2020 and the economy shut down, England talked almost daily with longtime Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, his mentor in the budgeting process, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s budget director, Kelly Farr, trying to figure out how bad things were going to get.

England and Hill were former retailers, and they spent a lot of time looking at what people were, and weren’t, spending money on. After Hill died in the spring of 2020, England became a mentor to new Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia.

“To me, he has been a teacher, a brother, a friend,” Tillery said.

The state economist was predicting a massive budget shortfall at the time, and lawmakers cut spending 10% in June 2020. But by then, the economy was showing signs of life, and since that summer, it has boomed. The state took in record revenue in fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, and is on track to set a high-water mark this year.

Because of that, Kemp is able to run for reelection this year promising raises to 300,000 state, university and k-12 staffers and increased spending across the board in state government.

Teresa MacCartney, acting chancellor of the University System of Georgia, worked closely with England for years while serving as then-Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget director.

“It was always clear how deeply he understood the impact state dollars could have on core priorities, like agriculture and education,” she said. “Today, our students and campuses across the state benefit from his insight and work to make education accessible to communities across Georgia.

“He has worked tirelessly over the years to make a difference for Georgians.”

England said he doesn’t know what he will do next, besides “go fishing, go hunting.”

“I will do something,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what yet.”

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

One thing he won’t miss is the brutal, partisan political climate. As budget chairman, England has mostly stayed out of it because he’s had to consider requests from lawmakers of both parties. He says every dollar the state spends affects Georgians, and it does so regardless of party affiliation.

“I like to work and get things done, and all that bickering doesn’t help anybody,” he said. “I said I was tired, but I am frustrated, too. Not at any one person, but where we find ourselves today.”

While budget chairmen work long hours and are largely anonymous outside the Capitol, Tillery said England played a large, if quiet role in helping a lot of Georgians.

“The bus driver, the FFA student, the person in a nursing home, the state trooper, both now and in the future, owe a debt of gratitude to Chairman England’s heart and humanity,” Tillery said. “The taxpayer will be indebted to him for his fiscal stewardship.”