Staff Photo by Margaret Fenton John Gooch files for unemployment at the Georgia Department of Labor office in Dalton, Ga., on Monday afternoon. Mr. Gooch was laid off from a fire department in the region after 18 years of service.
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, which includes the Chattanooga Times Free Press, 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 this 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 now 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.”
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.
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 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 Tuesday and also will give his State of the State address that night.
Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, the chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said he is eager to hear Deal’s plans. Balfour said lawmakers often can foster job creation best 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.
Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that supports free-market policies, said those 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.
“We’ve got a governor that’s supportive, I’m supportive,” he said. “We have an excellent opportunity for us to do something that needs to be done in Georgia.”
• 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.
• 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.
Mitchell Wright of Covington is among them. 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.”
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.
Susan McCord of The Augusta Chronicle contributed to this article.