George Busbee was the first Georgia governor to serve two consecutive four-year terms (1975-83). He gave the state eight years of effective, low-key leadership and ranks among the most popular and least controversial of modern Georgia governors.
Born in Vienna, Dooly County, on August 7, 1927, Busbee attended Georgia Military College and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College before joining the navy. After his discharge, he completed his education at the University of Georgia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a law degree in 1952. There he met Mary Elizabeth Talbot of Ruston, Louisiana; they were married in 1949 and had two sons and two daughters.
Settling in Albany, Busbee practiced law and in 1956 began his political career by winning a seat in the Georgia legislature. Intending to serve only two years, he wound up serving eighteen years in the Georgia House of Representatives and eight years as governor before retiring from politics in 1983.
Busbee shunned publicity while working quietly and methodically in the house. His moderation, sound judgment, and willingness to spend long hours at the job enabled him to advance to positions of leadership. After serving as floor leader for Governor Carl Sanders in 1967, he became majority leader, a position he held for eight years.
Despite his accomplishments in the house, Busbee faced an uphill battle to secure the Democratic nomination for governor in 1974. He had less name recognition than his chief rivals, Lieutenant Governor Lester Maddox, Highway Director Bert Lance, and former U.S. senator David Gambrell. With the campaign slogan “A workhorse, not a showhorse,” Busbee gradually increased his following and forged ahead of Lance to place second to Maddox. He easily defeated Maddox in the runoff, capturing nearly 60 percent of the vote. In the general election he soundly defeated Republican Ronnie Thompson of Macon, 646,777 votes to 289,113 votes.
Busbee’s inaugural address stressed the need for cooperation among the state’s elected officials. “The people are tired of personal bickering, petty infighting, and political clatter,” he said, in an obvious reference to the stormy Maddox and Jimmy Carter administrations. Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller echoed the call for harmony. A consistent supporter of education throughout his legislative career, Busbee made education his top priority as governor. Economic development, prison reform, constitutional revision, and restructuring the Department of Human Resources were other priorities. Working cooperatively with Miller and the General Assembly, Busbee made noteworthy progress in each of these areas during his eight years, despite a recession, soaring inflation, and an economic slowdown.
Establishing a statewide kindergarten program was Busbee’s chief educational reform. Despite the lukewarm support of teachers’ organizations and the opposition of House Speaker Tom Murphy, he secured funding for kindergartens in his initial legislative session. The governor’s victory was short-lived, however, as a national recession plunged the state into what Busbee characterized as the state’s worst financial crisis in forty years. With an estimated state deficit of $108 million, he had little choice but to call a special session that eliminated property-tax relief, pay raises for state employees, and funding for kindergartens. Forced into a policy of retrenchment, he sought economies in all areas of state government and reduced the 1976 state budget by $176 million. Later, when the economy improved, he obtained full funding for kindergartens and provided substantial raises for public schoolteachers and college professors.
When Busbee took office, the Georgia Constitution, with 831 amendments, was the longest in the nation. The need for revision had been apparent for many years. Governors Sanders and Maddox had attempted to revise the constitution, but without success. Having participated in both failed efforts, Busbee had gained valuable experience. Determined to produce a new document that was clear, brief, and flexible, he overcame several setbacks and finally won legislative approval of a new constitution in a special session in 1981, which the voters endorsed the next year.
Recognizing that Georgia could no longer depend on agriculture and textiles as its major industries, Busbee sought to attract high technology companies and establish a favorable business climate. His administration improved the infrastructure by rapidly completing the original interstate highway system, investing more than $100 million in the ports at Savannah and Brunswick, and expanding efforts to provide sufficient water and sewerage. It placed new emphasis on agribusiness, tourism, and the film industry. Under Busbee, Georgia became a popular site for film and television productions as 160 feature films, television movies, and specials were produced on location in the state. An administration-sponsored law allowing international banks to operate in Georgia brought sixteen international bank offices to the state by the end of his term. Finally, Busbee’s extensive travels throughout North and Central America, Europe, and the Far East advertised Georgia and encouraged investment in the state. These efforts produced impressive results as the number of international companies in the state increased from 150 in 1975 to 680 in 1982.
With more legislative experience than the eight previous governors combined, Busbee provided solid leadership to a state experiencing rapid population, economic, and urban growth. A fiscal conservative, he avoided major tax increases and worked harmoniously with the state bureaucracy and the General Assembly. Given Busbee’s popularity, both the legislature and Georgia voters readily approved of the constitutional amendment that allowed the governor to serve two consecutive terms. In 1978 he won a second term, easily defeating Republican Rodney Cook of Atlanta. The Atlanta Constitution editorialized in 1983 that Busbee was leaving office “with an enviable record of progress and stability.” In a 1985 poll, historians of Georgia ranked Busbee as the most fiscally responsible governor of the state among all those who held the office since World War II (1941-45).
After retiring from office in 1983, Busbee settled in Duluth in Gwinnett County and became a partner in the prestigious law firm of King & Spalding. In addition to practicing law, he became an active member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and served on several corporate boards as well as the Export Council for Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Busbee died suddenly of a massive heart attack in Savannah on July 16, 2004, at the age of seventy-six. He is buried in Duluth.