A lifetime of lessons led Jon Burns to the top post in the Georgia House
Although it lies on the outskirts of bustling Savannah, the northern reaches of Effingham County still remain largely unchanged from the place where Jon Burns grew up. The landscape is dominated by farms and churches, the earth rich in soil that produces cotton, peanuts, and soybeans. It’s a timeless slice of Georgia where Burns learned timeless lessons—like the value of maintaining good relationships with neighbors, the importance of working together to solve problems, and the significance of public service.
“My dad was involved in local politics and the school board, he was a county commissioner, and he gave me some insight into public service at an early age,” Burns recalled. “And that’s always been important to me. I learned that you can’t do without your neighbor, and if you want your neighbors to be neighborly to you, you have to be neighborly to them. And that certainly helped encourage me to become involved in the public sector, to try to work well with people, listening to them and working to solve problems.”
In some ways, Burns never left that rural corner of the state’s coastal plain; even today, he still keeps his permanent residence near the town of Newington. But in others, he’s carried those lessons throughout Georgia in the form of a legislative career that reached a new pinnacle on Jan. 9 when Burns was elected as the 75th Speaker of the House of Representatives. In taking the gavel, he accepted the chamber’s most powerful position and assumed a role widely considered the second most influential in the state behind the governor.
Burns spent a lifetime preparing for that moment, one in which the lessons he learned from parents, teachers, coaches, and fellow legislators all coalesced to form a Speaker who prizes teamwork and fairness and views himself as a consensus-builder. “What was embodied in me as a young person growing up was watching how my parents treated others and how folks responded to them,” Burns said. “Being respectful to other folks has been a hallmark of my family. It’s been good for us, and I think it’s been good for those we’ve interacted with.”
No wonder, then, Burns was elected Speaker by unanimous vote of all 180 House members, regardless of party affiliation. “There is nobody else qualified to work with both sides,” Rep. Ron Stephens of Savannah told the Savannah Morning News. “When you are Speaker of the House, you are Speaker of the whole House, not just your party. He is not extremely partisan, and I think that might be his best quality. So it is the next logical step for him to be Speaker of the House.”
That egalitarianism was echoed in Burns’ first speech on the House floor after being elected Speaker. “Whether you’re Republican, a Democrat, a new or returning member, I will work to serve each of you and our House to the very best of my ability,” he said.
As Speaker, Burns succeeds his good friend, the late David Ralston, who held the gavel for 13 years before stepping down in November of 2022 due to health concerns. Formerly Ralston’s top lieutenant as majority leader, Burns brings to the speakership not only his natural amicability but also an emphasis on cooperation ingrained in him partly by George Patton Rahn and Jim Long, his baseball and basketball coaches, respectively, at Effingham County High School. He credits his professors at Georgia Southern University and John Marshall Law School with opening his eyes to different people and different situations and “certainly broadening my horizons,” he added.
A father of two and grandfather of five, Burns possesses a warm and approachable manner that’s earned praise from both sides of the aisle. If he occasionally takes a little more time to make decisions, he recently told The Associated Press, it’s because he’s gathering different viewpoints on the issue. Those boyhood lessons learned in northern Effingham County continue to manifest themselves in the form of a Speaker who still values the opinions of his neighbors today.
“What I will do first thing is begin the listening process with our members,” Burns said. “That’s certainly ongoing already—reaching out to different members as we look to develop the priorities that are important to all segments of Georgia's population and our economy. That's how Speaker Ralston led from time to time; it was important to Speaker Ralston and important to the members that we developed a policy that was inclusive of all the members and inclusive of every part of the state. And that's how we'll continue to work. We will continue to be deliberative, which is important to me, as we work our way to a final decision on different items and different policy perspectives. That's what we're going to do.”
FROM AGRICULTURE TO THE STATE CAPITOL
Although Burns earned his law degree, he never became a practicing attorney—the lure of the land in his native Effingham County simply proved too strong to ignore. A self-professed “ag guy,” Burns has worked as a row crop farmer, in farm supply, in agribusiness, and in forestry. Following in the footsteps of his father, he eventually pro gressed into public service and was first elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2004 Those first steps into the corridors of power in Atlanta were daunting ones, to say the least.
“I had good friends there who tried to help prepare me, but nothing can prepare you for the experience, especially in that first year,” Burns recalled. “And back then, you were told to be seen and not heard, and that’s pretty much how the first year went. Some of that has changed; we have some very qualified new members who have come in very well-prepared. But the brotherhood and sisterhood that you get from service, and the sacrifice that our members make in representing their constituency all across the state, is really something I've grown to admire. Many days and hours go into this work, and you’re certainly away from your family for months at a time. That’s underappreciated by some folks but never by the members. We understand the sacrifices that are made, and it’s a very rewarding opportunity to serve your fellow man.”
He found help and guidance in others who worked under the golden dome of the state capitol. The late state Sen. Jack Hill was “a constant inspiration to me,” Burns said. “He taught me much of what I know. I credit him for what I've achieved and look forward to achieving in this body, as far as good public policy and teamwork. That's what Jack was about. He was a man of the people. And I hope I can certainly be that and emulate that same style that he had.”
Ralston, first elected to the House just two years before Burns, would become a font of encouragement and a close friend. “He gave me oppor tunities that I’m sure I didn’t deserve,” Burns said. “But I’ve always tried to make him proud and live up to the confidence he had in me, and I’ll continue to do that.” Current and former House members such as John Meadows, Jay Powell, and Terry England became a circle of confidants. His wife Dayle, a retired educator, provided a cornerstone of support as Burns progressed from freshman House member to arguably the second most powerful position in the Peach State.
The influence of Ralston, a giant of Georgia politics who passed away just weeks after announcing his intention to step down as Speaker, remains unmistakable as Burns moves into the House’s top post. A lawmaker from the north Georgia mountains, Ralston had defined the speakership for 13 years before stepping down in November. For seven of those years, Burns was his No. 2 as majority leader. The colleagues became close friends, with Ralston’s loyalty continuing to stand out as a trait that Burns hopes to emulate.
“He showed such dedication to his friends and to the Georgia House, and he protected it. He protected the members of the House in all situations, and sometimes members were not kind to him,” Burns said. “But I can tell you, my experience was he was always kind and generous with the members of the House. And that's how we'll conduct the House as we move forward. He left the ship in good stead, and we're going to just keep it that way. He left this state in good stead. His ability to work across the aisle, to work with the Governor's office and work with the Senate, has led Georgia to places that many would not have expected us to reach. But his leadership took us to new heights, and we want to continue that progress.”
For the two top Republicans in the Georgia House, it went deeper than politics. “David Ralston was my mentor,” Burns said. “I looked up to him. He was my Speaker and still is my Speaker. But more importantly, he was my friend. And that's how I will always remember Speaker Ralston—as a man who stood beside his friends, took lots of bullets for his friends, if you will, and stood by them in every sense of the word. His legacy will be forever with us in the House and in this state. And his impact on many individuals in this state, certainly on me, is something that I never could escape from or never want to escape from.”
‘THE OPPORTUNITIES ARE BOUNDLESS’
When Burns was first elected to the Georgia House in 2004, electric cars were still something of a novelty, with the first hybrid going into mass production only a few years earlier. Georgia was an occasional location for movies and television shows thanks to its rolling backroads and moss-draped Southern scenery. And Georgia Ports’ terminal at Savannah had just been ranked the fourth-busiest in the country.
As Burns assumes the speakership in 2023, so much has changed. Georgia has emerged as a hub of the electric vehicle industry in the United States, with over two dozen related companies operating in the state. Georgia’s film industry now boasts over 4 million square feet of soundstage space and is powered by a largely local workforce that turns out hits like Marvel films and Netflix’s “Stranger Things” series. And Georgia Ports has grown into an economic behemoth that was responsible for $140 billion in sales, $2 billion in state taxes, and 9 percent of Georgia’s total GDP in the fiscal year 2021.
“The opportunities are boundless,” Burns said when asked to characterize Georgia in 2023 from an economic development standpoint. “I mean, boundless when we look at our future. That’s one of the things we're going to do in the House—we're going to look at technology, how it's impacting our lives today, how it’s going to impact our lives in the days to come, and our children’s and grandchildren's lives. I believe when you view Georgia in those terms, it’s the power of our people, the infrastructure, our healthcare, our educational opportunities, and the ability to improve yourself by getting a good-paying job. That’s what's propelled Georgia to be the envy of our nation and the No. 1 place to live and work and raise a family.”
To Burns, there’s a common thread running through it all: Georgia’s embrace of technology. Leaders in those industries, he said, know the educational opportunities that the state can present in helping them build their workforce; and indeed, that’s been evident in a film industry now largely staffed by professionals who live in the state. Workforce training and financial incentives have also proven a boon to an EV industry that’s seen both Hyundai and Rivian commit to facilities that could one day turn out over 700,000 electric vehicles combined.
“Nobody's coming here if we don't have a well-educated, well-rounded workforce,” Burns said. “So for me, it's the people of Georgia, their innate ability and desire to improve themselves and improve their families. I think that's what places Georgia on a plane of its own—we have a work ethic here that is second to none. I think that's one of the things that is important about our state and that people recognize. That’s why they're willing to come here.”
Meanwhile, Georgia Ports continues to grow, with Savannah handling 8.5 percent of U.S. containerized cargo volume and 10 percent of all U.S. containerized exports in fiscal 2017. Managing that degree of volume has led Georgia Ports to undertake infrastructure improvements such as the Mason Mega Rail project, which expanded Savannah’s rail cargo capacity by 30 percent. Investment in Georgia Ports, Burns said, benefits every county in the state due to the port’s economic trickle-down effects.
“The House has always led in making sure the Georgia Ports Authority had the public resources [it] needed,” Burns added. “Like the work with Gov. [Nathan] Deal to make sure funding for port deepening was there before the federal monies became available, to make sure we got that project started so it would come to fruition as it has. There are still some challenges for the ports, but it’s been a great effort statewide. They've been very wise stewards of that fiscal assistance and continue to make sure their improvements are very important and very timely to continue having the success that we're having down there. So the ports are a great success story.”
Although agriculture remains a $69 billion industry in Georgia, the shift toward technology is evident in a state that ranked eighth nationally in tech job postings in September of 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Georgia Dept. of Labor projects the state will add 95,000 new jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math by 2028. Over the course of his career as a lawmaker, Burns has witnessed that shift firsthand—and as Speaker, wants to help ensure Georgia is prepared for its next phase.
“We've taken a leadership position in EVs in this country. We've taken a leadership position in the film industry in this country. We’ve taken a leadership position in the ports in this country and on anything that we've really gone after,” he said. “But I think our opportunity lies now to expand our horizons here with great paying jobs. Technological innovations cover a wide range when you start talking about the medical field, transportation, and so many areas. But we bring the jobs here. We already have a lot of them in so many sectors. We can take a huge step by preparing ourselves for technology and what the next deal is for us. And the House wants to make sure we're ready for it.”