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New state senator ready for Gold Dome grind

‘People person’ Miller excited about working in legislature

POSTED: January 2, 2011 12:30 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

State Sen. Butch Miller, also an owner and dealer manager of Milton Martin Honda, talks Wednesday with customers Elizabeth Garrett and her husband, Robert, at the dealership in Gainesville.

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Butch Miller could be a professional juggler.

The Jan. 10 legislative session hasn't started yet, but District 49's state senator already has the schedule down — zipping to Atlanta for impromptu meetings, answering endless phone calls and e-mails, and somehow still squeezing in gym time in the mornings and family time in the evenings.

"It's amazing the letters, calls and e-mails you get," Miller said Wednesday, pointing out ones from local residents asking about their trash pickup, veterans benefits or the high gas prices. Another person asked if he had moved to Washington, D.C., yet, rather than the Gold Dome.

Miller won a special election in May for the seat formerly held by Lee Hawkins, who stepped down to run for the U.S. House. He was unopposed on the ballot for a full term in November.

"After I was sworn in May 20, I thought I would go to the Capitol once a week to make sure I was getting my arms around everything, and then that became two days a week," he said. "During the fall, that sometimes became three afternoons or three mornings a week, and that's going to be reversed during the session. I'll be down there five days a week and up here at work on a few afternoons."

Miller's office as general manager at the Milton Martin Honda dealership on Brown's Bridge Road screams his personality: a huge District 49 map on one wall and the others scattered with family photographs, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce plaques and recognition from various community organizations, including his Rotary Club.

A shelf stacked with books boasts more photos, trophies and three signed footballs from Flowery Branch High School's gridiron fights against Pickens, Stephens County and West Forsyth high schools.

Heading into his first legislative session as a freshman senator, Miller plans to "go to Atlanta and do what's right."
This is especially true when it comes to this year's state budget, which is facing a $1.5 billion gap in federal stimulus money.

"Spending cuts have been taboo for years, and when they are proposed, everyone wants to find out and talk to the victim," Miller said. "If we don't have the political will to do the things that we know are right, the victim is going to be the jobs, the quality of life, the hard-working Georgian who is raising a family and paying his taxes and contributing to our community."

Miller has jumped headfirst into the job, picking up anything he can read about the top issues and attending meetings for his five current committee assignments: agriculture and consumer affairs, natural resources, transportation, economic development and immigration reform.

"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," Miller said while talking to his legislative counsel about education reform on his cell phone Wednesday and tossing a Koosh ball in the air. "If another state is doing it well, we should check what works and what doesn't."

The Koosh ball is vital for any important decision.

"It's great thinking time. It slows you down. When you do something that's familiar to you, it makes you consider all the options," he said. "Part of the problem we have in government is the unintended consequence of legislation on the business, private and social sectors. We're influencing areas we never intended to influence."

Miller knows the toughest question for the session is the budget, and he's pledging to look at all sides before making a decision.

"Every expenditure is going to be scrutinized, and departments that have never had the light shone on them before are going to experience a new day," he said. "That's always good. It makes you better prepared for the good times when business does rebound, and business and the economy will rebound."

Miller has a few ideas on the table for legislation, including expanding Georgia's nursing programs, but isn't yet releasing the specifics. He's also feeling out his relationships with fellow senators at the Capitol. The freshman Senate caucus of 12 talk weekly through conference calls and an e-mail group. Miller makes it a point to know the facts.

"The exciting thing is that because I've been to these committee meetings, I'm familiar with the cause and subject, and I'm able to get up and speak about it with a bit of authority and confidence," he said.

In fact, Miller drew support when he stood up to give his point of view at a recent meeting.

"A guy from South Georgia with a deep baritone voice and Southern drawl said ‘I believe that old boy from Gainesville is going to do all right,'" Miller said with a laugh. "When you get encouragement from veteran senators, that gives you a great deal of confidence."

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a fellow Hall Countian who has known Miller for years, is looking forward to working with him in Atlanta.

"With his keen understanding of the water issues surrounding Lake Lanier and background as a successful businessman, I have no doubt that he will play a critical role in shaping state policy for the better," Cagle said. "And as one of the funniest people I know, he will bring a great sense of humor and some much needed levity to the Capitol."

Miller, who foresaw his foray into politics in elementary school, is excited to dig into the 40-day legislative session with an eye on his constituents. Though he and his wife, Teresa, talked about the campaign trail before, they decided to seriously consider the possibility 18 months ago.

"Our children were a little older, the business was more mature and we had a family meeting at the kitchen table to discuss it. Everybody had veto power," Miller said with a smile. "We decided to do this all together and make sure everybody was comfortable with it. The campaign was great, and the outpouring of support was just humbling."

Local friends think his outlook will help him pull through the first session with new ideas.

"He's such an optimistic, positive and caring person," said Lee Highsmith, who knows Miller through Rotary Club and her job as development director for Challenged Child and Friends. "When I'm visiting with him, he always makes me smile and makes me laugh. Even through dark times, such as the illness and death of his son, he turned that into a positive thing and has helped so many families and children."

One thing Miller is sure to do? He'll listen, Highsmith said.

"He'll approach this position as one of service to his community. He's a great people person and had a heart for people," said Richard Higgins, former Hall County Schools school board chairman who has known Miller for more than 20 years.

"Serving as a deacon and Sunday school teacher at Lakewood Baptist Church, he commits to something with his whole heart. He's like the Energizer bunny. I wish I had his energy."



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