ATLANTA -- State Sen. Ross Tolleson will retire from the Legislature at the end of this month because of health problems.
Tolleson, 59, said he has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“I’ve got a wife and three kids, and I got to take care of my health,” Tolleson said.
He described his symptoms as hardening of the blood vessels in the brain, which also killed his grandmother.
“I’m counting on modern medicine to keep it in check,” said Tolleson, R-Perry.
The governor and the secretary of state will soon announce a date for a special election to fill the roughly one year remaining in Tolleson’s two-year term. Tolleson’s District 20 covers all of Bleckley, Laurens and Pulaski counties as well as most of Houston County.
The Perry native was sworn into the state Senate in 2003 and has since become a powerful lawmaker. He’s vice chairman of the Rules Committee and is chairman of the Natural Resources and the Environment Committee.
That’s made him a key gatekeeper in water supply policy -- a fairly technical topic usually buried as far from headlines as water pipes below a street. Last year, he passed the Flint River Drought Protection Act, the result of a two-year tug-of-war among lobbyists from green groups, farmers and business interests. The final bill mandates some farm water savings and some studies of the river’s health, but it also allows a controversial pilot project to augment the river with water pumped up from aquifers. In 2011, he passed a signature bill that lets local governments partner with private companies to help build and maintain reservoirs and other water infrastructure projects.
Tolleson also serves on the Jekyll Island State Park Authority Oversight Committee and last year passed a law that sets a limit on the number of acres on the island that can be developed. The limit used to be set as a percent of the island’s total size, which led to fighting between conservationists and would-be builders about the size of an island that changes with tides.
Closer to home, he also serves on the legislative committee that oversees the Georgia Agricultural Exposition Authority -- managers of the fairground in Perry.
“He has always championed projects and continued financial support necessary to sustain the needs of the program” and faithfully attended its monthly meetings, said Randy Moore, executive director of the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter.
Tolleson, a tree farmer and financial advisor, said he will stay engaged in politics.
“Life is too short to slow down because when you’re gone, you’re gone,” Tolleson said. “I’m going to stay happy. I’m going to stay engaged.”
Speaking by phone, Tolleson sounded upbeat, making jokes that might not be jokes.
“Who knows? I may run for U.S. Senate,” he said.
Perry political godfather Larry Walker Jr., a former state House Majority Leader, said Tolleson is an “indefatigable worker” and will be remembered at home as someone who paid close attention to his constituents.
“If you call him, he will call you back,” Walker said.
Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said Tolleson was “always engaged in the community.”
“He would always listen to you even if you had a difference of opinion,” Stalnaker said.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said in a written statement that Tolleson “is one of the hardest working members of the Senate and is widely known to be the first member to arrive in the morning -- often before others even got out of bed.”
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.