Republican Sen. Jack Hill “was my mentor and my hero,” the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Tuesday.

“There was no finer gentleman,” said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome. “In an age where so many people attack on social media and elsewhere, I never heard Jack raise his voice or attack anyone in a speech or discussion.”

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 Monday night 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.

Hufstetler said Tuesday that Hill had been working with the House on a bare-bones budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“Jack would joke with me and say, ‘It’s your job to bring in the money and my job as appropriations chair to spend it.’ ... I was proud of my Finance Chair and had it on my badge. His badge the last few years simply said ‘Jack Hill,’” Hufstetler wrote in a Facebook post. “That says it all.”

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.

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.”

The 2021 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.

Hufstetler noted that the March revenue figures released Tuesday showed a 9.8% increase overall, although sales tax was down 2.4% compared to the previous year. However, he expects next month’s report to be down considerably — despite the April 1 start of mandated tax collections by so-called “marketplace facilitators” like Amazon and eBay that allow third-party online sales.

Still, Hufstetler noted that the state has “a record rainy day fund balance” and is expecting additional assistance from the federal government.

The Georgia General Assembly remains suspended due to the pandemic, although leaders are working to figure a way to pass a new spending plan before July 1.

“Despite all this, my main focus has been on keeping the infection rate down,” said Hufstetler, whose full time job is as an anesthetist at Redmond Regional Medical Center.

“Our local community leaders, citizens and hospitals have done a great job and I am starting to feel optimistic about avoiding a disaster,” he added. “Our social distancing is clearly working. We just need to keep it up for a couple more weeks.”

Crossing the aisle

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.

Night Editor Diane Wagner contributed to this report.

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