Marcus Collins, old school Georgia politico, dies

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Marcus Eugene Collins Sr., a gruff tobacco farmer from Mitchell County who wielded an oversized cigar and considerable political influence during his four decades in the legislative and executive branches of state government, died Friday at the age of 87.

Collins was a legislator for 20 years and the state’s revenue commissioner for 13 years, but derived much of his power from being a close friend and political strategist for Tom Murphy, the Bremen lawyer who ran the Georgia House of Representatives for 28 years as speaker.

Collins was instrumental in Murphy being elected House speaker in 1974. He then held sway over Georgia’s tax code first as chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee and then as revenue commissioner.

He was a stereotypical holdover from the state’s “county unit” era when the General Assembly was dominated by the “wool hat crowd” of conservative white Democrats from rural legislative districts.

Governors were elected in those days not according to the number of votes they received but by the number of counties they carried. Because Georgia contains 159 counties, it was easy for the smaller rural counties to team up and outvote the much more populous urban counties to determine who the state’s chief executive would be.

Collins was a blunt-spoken, barrel-chested lawmaker who, like his good friend Murphy, walked the capitol hallways chewing on a large cigar. His dominating physical presence, it was said, often intimidated legislators into going along with whatever he was proposing at the time.

Although his official biography listed him as being from Pelham, Collins actually lived in the unincorporated farming community of Cotton – thus making him one of the few Southern politicians who could legitimately say he was from the land of Cotton.

Born on January 25, 1927 in Albany, Collins served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific Theater during World War II, where he was awarded the Army of Occupation (Japan) Medal.

He was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1960 as part of a freshman class of lawmakers that included Murphy in the House and Zell Miller in the state Senate.

Collins was part of the last group of officials elected under the county unit system. Starting in 1962, a series of federal court decisions forced the state to reapportion its legislative districts and elect its governors by popular vote.

Collins lost his 1962 bid for a second term in the Georgia House by just 11 votes. He won his legislative seat back in 1964 and went on to serve 10 more terms in the General Assembly.

He knew how to build political coalitions among lawmakers, a skill he utilized to help Murphy get elected speaker pro tem in 1970 after the death of Rep. Maddox J. Hale of Dade County.

Collins again played the role of powerbroker in December 1973 after House Speaker George L. Smith died unexpectedly.

Rep. George Busbee of Albany, then the House majority leader, had been planning to run for governor in 1974 but was seen in many quarters as the favorite to replace Smith as speaker. Collins, however, worked behind the scenes for his friend Murphy.

In his self-published history of the Georgia Legislature, Bobby Rowan wrote:

Busbee knew that the speaker of the House was the most powerful job in Georgia and indicated that he might drop out of gubernatorial race and, instead, seek the speaker’s position. Busbee’s interest was well publicized, but Tom Murphy also wanted to be speaker – a showdown was expected. Once again, Marcus Collins stepped in, spoke with George, and told him that although he would provide him with unconditional support in the governor’s race, he and several other legislators were committed to Murphy for the speaker’s position. Busbee had little choice.

Murphy was subsequently elected speaker, a position he held from 1974 through 2002, while Busbee went on to be elected to two terms as governor in 1974 and 1978.

Collins thus was the kingmaker who helped determine the direction of state politics for the next quarter-century. He also ended up with the chairmanship of the powerful Ways & Means Committee, which then as now shapes the General Assembly’s tax legislation.

During the 1970s and into the 1980s, Collins was part of a House leadership clique headed by Murphy that also included Speaker Pro Tem Jack Connell of Augusta and Rep. Don Castleberry of Richland.

Collins, Connell and Castleberry drafted a paragraph called the “3-C Amendment” through which they tried to bolster the power of the Legislature at the expense of the governor’s office. The “3-C Amendment” required that regulations promulgated by the executive branch had to get legislative approval, and the Collins-Connell-Castleberry trio routinely attached their amendment to practically every major bill that came out of the House.

Collins and Murphy, along with other Democratic House members, helped one of their own, Joe Frank Harris, get elected governor in 1982 when Busbee reached his two-term limit in office.

Collins stepped down from the House in 1983 when Harris appointed him commissioner of the revenue department, the agency responsible for collecting state taxes.

He proved to be better at brokering political deals than at running the day-to-day administrative affairs of one of the state’s largest agencies.

After 13 years as Georgia’s chief tax collector, Collins abruptly announced his retirement in July 1996 when a state audit criticized the revenue department for mishandling the distribution of $1.5 billion in sales tax revenues to local governments.

The Atlanta Business Chronicle editorialized:

Collins was part of a political machine, and not a savvy financial expert who could make educated decisions about the state’s finances. The governor’s office has known about a variety of problems within the Revenue Department for years, but little action has been taken to correct the situation. County and city officials have collectively shrugged their shoulders, saying you can’t fight Marcus Collins and his closest ally, Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy.

It was not the end of Collins’ career in state government, however.

After supporting Roy Barnes in the 1998 governor’s race, Collins was appointed by Barnes in 1999 as the executive director of the Tobacco Community Development Board, which was created to manage the distribution of funds Georgia received through a legal settlement with the major tobacco companies.

At the first meeting of the tobacco board, Barnes called for the panel to go into executive session to set Collins’ salary. Barnes took this action, ironically, just a few months after signing landmark legislation that was intended to strengthen the state’s open meetings law.

Over the objections of Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, the tobacco board met privately and voted to pay Collins an $80,000 annual salary for what was considered a part-time job (Collins was already drawing a state pension of $55,646 at the time).

“This is no reflection on the qualifications of the man appointed to be director,” said Wayne Dollar, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, about the Collins appointment. “He’s a good man, and he knows farming.”

While living in Atlanta as a state legislator and bureaucrat, Collins rented a suite at the old Stadium Hotel near Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where he hosted a daily breakfast meeting of his capitol colleagues.

Political columnist Bill Shipp described these occasions as a “nearly daily gathering in Collins’ rooms to make early-morning small talk, tell tall tales and perhaps mend a few fences or hatch a plot or two.”

“Those assembled discuss a wide range of subjects – from mules to politics,” Rowan recalled.

That quaint style of political life came to an end in the pivotal election year of 2002, when Barnes was upset in the governor’s race by Republican Sonny Perdue and Murphy was ousted after 42 years in the General Assembly by GOP challenger Bill Heath.

Collins suffered a stroke in 2003 and retired from his tobacco board position, giving up his hotel suite and moving back to Mitchell County.

A family visitation will be held on Sunday from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Jamerson Funeral Home in Pelham. Funeral services will be conducted on Monday at 3 p.m. in the chapel of the funeral home. Interment will be held in Pinecrest Memory Gardens.

© 2014 by The Georgia Report

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Tags: George Busbee , Joe Frank Harris , Marcus Collins , roy barnes , Tom Murphy , Zell Miller