When Georgia legislators return to Atlanta this week for the start of the 2012 legislative session, voters overwhelmingly want them to focus on jobs and economic development. Nothing else comes close.
A poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Georgia Newspaper Partnership shows that 39 percent of registered Georgia voters believe the economy and job creation should be the top priority of the governor and General Assembly when the legislative session starts Monday morning.
Alvin McCullough is among the 39 percent.
“We need jobs; people need to go to work,” said McCullough, a 70-year-old retired manufacturing worker from Waynesboro, near Augusta, who drives a school bus. “A lot of people that are on welfare now, they don’t have a choice. A lot of people are losing their houses.”
Alice and Ramon Escobedo, of Warner Robins, agreed.
“It’s the way of life,” Alice Escobedo, 49, said during lunch at a Subway on Watson Boulevard. “If we didn’t have jobs, we wouldn’t survive.”
Another 14 percent of respondents said health care should be the top concern while 12 percent said state taxes and spending, which often go hand in hand with job creation. Education was the primary concern for 10 percent, and no other issue reached double digits.
Julie May of Gordon, a social worker for the Bibb County public school system, said she would support a tax increase to restore education funding, which has been slashed in recent years. May, who described herself as a moderate Republican, said she also would support an additional dollar tax on cigarettes to pay for a state income tax cut.
“I would support raising taxes for education. If you educate people, they’re going to be able to get a job and they’ll help increase the tax base. There’s not enough people on the tax base now, and it’s hurting the people who are on there.”
May, 44, said moral and family issues should top the Legislature’s list of priorities, but she said the economy should be up there, too.
“Since I’m a Christian, I think morals should be No. 1,” she said. “Education should be No. 2.”
May said that as a social worker she sees the “whole gamut” of the issues. “Jobs and the economy tie into everything,” she said.
Georgians also strongly said they support changes in state ethics laws to limit lobbyists’ largesse at the Gold Dome.
Retired postal worker William Glidewell of Lincolnton wants both disclosure of lobbyists’ gifts as well as caps on the value of dinners, tickets and trips that lobbyists bestow on lawmakers.
“I’m sort of old-fashioned,” said Glidewell, 79. “I don’t think they should give them anything. It’s a bribe for support.”
Meanwhile, legislative leaders and Gov. Nathan Deal said the poll confirms their belief that action is needed on job creation, and said they will respond. Deal plans to make an announcement on the subject this week, but aides did not offer details in advance.
“The governor on Tuesday will outline his vision for making Georgia more competitive for job creation, as he has always said he wants to make Georgia the most competitive place to do business in the Southeast,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said.
Deal will speak at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s annual Eggs & Issues breakfast on Tuesday and will also give his State of the State address that night.
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said he is eager to hear Deal’s plans. Balfour said lawmakers can often best foster job creation by making the state more competitive, whether it’s through economic development incentives or by changing the tax code.
“It’s not a surprise at all we’re talking jobs,” Balfour said. “It’s the No. 1, 2 and 3 issue, as it is in probably 45 other states.”
The governor’s announcement Tuesday is expected to include his plan for a tax overhaul, which he and others believe will spur job creation. There are already draft proposals floating around the Capitol to lower the state’s individual income tax rate while raising the state sales tax or by adding a sales tax on groceries.
Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, said he is interested in shifting the state’s tax focus from income to consumption taxes and that adding a state sales tax on groceries might make sense.
But, Williams said, “I don’t know that we’ll have the will to do that.” Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, for one, has already come out squarely against the idea, and Deal has previously said he opposes taxing groceries.
Wayne Memmler, 46, of Hampton, hopes lawmakers find another way. The Republican voter believes jobs and economic development should be lawmakers’ top concern, but he wants to see the tax burden eased for small businesses and is wary of lawmakers shifting taxes.
“Whenever you’re raising taxes and correspondingly lowering taxes, it never seems to work,” Memmler said.
Poll respondents said they were dubious of adding sales taxes to groceries in exchange for an income tax cut. Only 19 percent of statewide voters said they support the idea. Sixty percent, however, said they would support increasing the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack to pay for an income tax cut.
Ramon Escobedo, 56, of Warner Robins, said he wouldn’t support adding a sales tax on groceries in exchange for a tax cut.
“Prices of groceries are already high,” he said. “That would be hurting the people if they increased the price of groceries.”
Groceries affect people on a day-to-day basis, and a cut in the state income tax wouldn’t make much of a difference, he said.
Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that supports free-market policies, said the numbers do not surprise him.
“What that shows is most everyone buys groceries and not many people smoke,” McCutchen said. “Most tax questions, people personalize and calculate, ‘I’m for the tax increase that other people are going to pay. I’m for the tax cut I’m going to receive.’ ’’
Meanwhile, Deal will also highlight a new major health care initiative next week, Robinson said, noting that 14 percent of poll respondents said that issue was their primary concern.
“We have some important news we’ll be making on health care,” Robinson said. “We’re going to lay the groundwork for having the doctors and the medical infrastructure in place that we need to serve a growing population here.”
Other highlights from the poll include:
Sixty-four percent support shortening prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and diverting drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prison, an idea that House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, called “exciting.” Concerns have been raised about rising prison costs, and Ralston said he believes lawmakers will make historic changes in how the state incarcerates individuals who could still be productive members of society.
Fifty-three percent of statewide voters believe the state should spend money to support daily operations of mass transit, such as Xpress suburban buses and MARTA.
Half of all respondents agree the state should change its new immigration law to address concerns from farmers and others in the agriculture industry that the tough new regulations are hurting one of Georgia’s most important economic engines. Nearly a third, 31 percent, oppose changes while 19 percent are undecided.
A slim majority, 51 percent, support legalization of gambling on horse racing to support HOPE scholarship programs and trauma care. Slightly fewer, 46 percent, support legalizing casino gambling.
The Escobedos of Warner Robins, who have a son who attends Georgia Military College on the HOPE scholarship, said they would support allowing gambling on horse racing to try to raise more money for the scholarship fund and trauma care.
Mitchell Wright of Covington agrees. The 88-year-old Republican sees it as economic development.
“You bring in casino gambling, I think that will be a big source of revenue,” Wright said, adding that Underground Atlanta and Savannah would be logical locations. “The lottery is the same thing as casino gambling, absolutely.”
Macon attorney Bob Daniel said the Legislature should focus first on roads, bridges and transportation “because that puts people to work.”
Education and health care should be next on the Legislature’s agenda, he said.
Daniel, 63, said he would not support a sales tax on groceries to pay for a cut in the state income tax because the cuts would not be administered fairly.
“They wouldn’t cut it for everybody. They would only cut it for the rich.”
Daniel, a Democrat, said he favors horse racing to bolster the HOPE scholarship, and he also supports casino gambling in Georgia.
But he wouldn’t stop there.
“I think they ought to legalize prostitution,” he said
The poll also asked a series of questions regarding ethics at the state Capitol, and the results show overwhelming support for tighter controls on lobbyists’ spending as well as greater transparency.
Asked whether they support a cap on the value of gifts lobbyists may give state officials, 72 percent of statewide respondents said yes. An additional 76 percent support requiring the General Assembly to follow the same open government laws applied to other state agencies. The Legislature is exempt from Open Records and Open Meetings acts.
Telegraph staff writers Jennifer Burk and Rodney Manley contributed to this report, as did Susan McCord of The Augusta Chronicle.