Bert Lance served in high positions in the Georgia Democratic Party and in state government in the 1970s before U.S. president Jimmy Carter appointed him director of the Office of Management and Budget in 1977.
Born on June 3, 1931, in Gainesville, Thomas Bertram Lance moved as a young boy to Young Harris, in Towns County, where his father, Thomas Jackson Lance, served as president of Young Harris College. In 1941 the family moved to Calhoun in Gordon County when Lance’s father became superintendent of the Calhoun schools. Lance attended the University of Georgia and later took graduate courses in banking at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and at Rutgers University in New Jersey. While still at the University of Georgia, he married LaBelle David, a childhood friend, and after graduation he took a job as a bank clerk at the Calhoun First National Bank, established by his wife’s grandfather at the turn of the century. Within a decade Lance rose to become president of that bank; later he was elected chairman of the bank’s board and served in that position for several years.
Lance’s community-service work in Calhoun and Gordon County led him in 1966 to a political association with Jimmy Carter, then a state senator from Plains. Carter campaigned, unsuccessfully that year, for the governorship of Georgia. The two men and their wives became fast friends, bonded by their similar backgrounds; their common vision for the political, social, and economic future of Georgia; and their evangelical Christian values.
When Carter was elected governor in 1970, he appointed Lance to the politically sensitive position of state highway director. Lance reduced the department payroll, instituted a central cash-management system, and introduced zero-based budgeting, among other reforms. His personal and official relationship with Governor Carter, already strong, became firmer, and when Carter left office, he supported Lance’s unsuccessful candidacy to succeed him in 1974.
When Carter announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1976, Lance was numbered among his closest advisors. In the interim between his loss in the gubernatorial campaign in 1974 and Jimmy Carter’s victory in the presidential race in 1976, Lance was tapped to serve as president of the Atlanta-based National Bank of Georgia, a position he held until Carter named him director of the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in January 1977.
At OMB, Lance laid the foundation for policies of fiscal conservatism, efficiency, and reduction in the size of government. A 1977 U.S. Justice Department investigation into irregular practices at the Calhoun First National Bank sparked extensive press examination of activities at the bank. On July 11, 1977, President Carter issued a letter asking for an extension of time in which Lance was to divest himself of ownership interests in the National Bank of Georgia. The national press, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, turned their attention to both the National Bank of Georgia and the Calhoun bank, and the new Carter administration found itself in a political maelstrom. Soon, administration initiatives and policies were swamped by the attention surrounding Lance, including a public hearing before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, chaired by Democratic senator Abraham Ribicoff, at which Lance refuted the charges made against him.
Finally, on September 21, 1977, Lance offered, and the president reluctantly accepted, his resignation from the leadership of the OMB. At a federal trial in Atlanta, lasting from January through April 1980, Lance faced ten counts alleging misapplications of bank funds in loans to relatives and friends and two counts alleging false financial statements. A jury found Lance not guilty of all charges brought against him.
Lance served as chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia from September 1982 until July 1985, and he remained active in community, state, and national affairs, frequently appearing as a speaker before civic, religious, and professional groups.
He died on August 15, 2013.