Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said Monday that he won’t seek a fourth term overseeing the state’s unemployment and job search system.
The Republican, in a memo to staff at the state Labor Department, wrote that it is “my intention to retire from politics at the end of my term to concentrate on family and new opportunities.”
Butler, who was a state House member from Carrollton for eight years before he was elected labor commissioner in 2010, said that the decision was motivated in part by a recurrence of his wife’s cancer after she had gone into remission in 2021.
The three-term incumbent was beset by challengers who criticized his agency’s handling of the huge swell of unemployment claims during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. More than 2.5 million unemployment claims were filed in the three months beginning in mid-March, with the state paying more than $6 billion in state and federal benefits in that span.
But thousands of people complained that they never got payments they believed they were owed, deluging the agency and state lawmakers with complaints.
Butler has acknowledged that the department was overloaded, blaming earlier underfunding by state lawmakers for sapping some of the agency’s capacity. However, he has said the agency caught up.
“I’m extremely proud of how the men and women of the Department of Labor stepped up and put in long hours taking on unbelievable odds during this pandemic,” Butler wrote in the memo.
An audit also faulted Butler for spending more than $1.1 million in state and federal money to provide employees with a free daily meal from March 2020 through summer of 2021. Butler said he had received permission to buy the food in an attempt to boost employee morale and productivity. Other state officials said that permission wasn’t meant to stretch for more than a short emergency period.
State lawmakers sought to try to strip Butler of some of his power last year, but Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed the bill.
The criticism led to multiple challengers filing to seek Butler’s seat, including Republican state Sen. Bruce Thompson of White and three Democrats — state Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah, state Rep. William Boddie of East Point and businessperson and party activist Nicole Horn of Atlanta.
Butler becomes the third statewide incumbent not to seek reelection. Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan is stepping down from elected office, while Republican Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black is seeking his party’s nomination for Senate.