Monday February 8th, 2016 6:19PM

Ethics, abortion, gambling on Ga. primary ballots

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA - Ethics, abortion and casino gambling are among the issues Georgia's Republican and Democratic parties are asking their voters to weigh in on this primary election season.

Georgia's primary election is July 31, and early voting is already under way.

The ballot questions don't carry the weight of law, but what voters say on these issues could prompt lawmakers into action during next year's legislative session. The questions were chosen by party leaders from around the state during their annual conventions earlier this year.

Both parties are asking how voters feel about unlimited gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, with the GOP ballot asking if gifts should be capped at $100. The idea has been circulating at the Legislature, but lawmakers have lacked the political will to address the issue.

Georgia Tea Party Patriots state coordinator Debbie Dooley, a chief proponent of ethics reform, said the bipartisan attention to the issue shows that it is a priority among voters and could drive voter turnout in the primary.

``This is something a lot of people are focused on,'' Dooley said. ``A lot of candidates are running on ethics.''

Dooley is among those in a bipartisan group of advocates launching a statewide bus tour pushing the ethics ballot question the week before the primary. Dooley said she expects voters in both parties will overwhelmingly support ethics reform and bolster their efforts.

``We can ask (of lawmakers), `Do you want to choose to ignore the will of the voters?''' Dooley said. ``'If you do, you do so at your own peril.' A lot of people who did not have primary opposition this year might find themselves with opposition in 2014 if they block this.''

Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Everhart said the ballot questions on the GOP ticket arose from issues that came up as she met with Republican voters around the state.

``These are things that have been coming to me over a period of two or three years,'' Everhart said. ``I took out the ones that seemed to get the most questions and took them to the executive committee.''

Everhart said that she has received the most inquiries on ethics and casino gambling. The latter issue has gained traction in recent years as lawmakers and others have questioned how to continue to fund the HOPE scholarship amid dwindling lottery funds.

While Everhart wondered if the people of Georgia would ever approve casinos, she said the response from Republicans was clear: Ask them.

Attitudes around the issue could be changing. Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers recently signaled on the campaign trail that he would be willing to support casinos, though he stopped short of endorsing gambling.

``My philosophy of government is that people should be allowed to govern themselves until they violate someone else's rights,'' Rogers said in a statement. ``It's not my place to tell people how to spend their own money. I don't play the lottery, but if someone wants to play the lottery or an electronic version of the lottery, that's their business, not mine.''

On the abortion issue, Republican primary voters will be asked whether they would support a ``right to life'' amendment to the state Constitution.

Everhart said members of the party asked for it.

``There was no discussion whatsoever,'' she said. ``They wanted it. The faith-based community really wanted it on there. I got more emails on that one and ethics than any of the other ones.''

Democratic Party Chairman Mike Berlon said his party's questions were the result of collaboration between House and Senate Democratic leadership and the state party. In addition to ethics, Democratic voters will be asked their thoughts on charter schools, an income tax credit for home energy costs and a plan to reduce sales tax on Georgia-made goods.

``I'm not really sure how they're going to come out,'' Berlon said. ``We're really interested in what the temperature is in the room with Democratic voters and how they feel about some of these issues. That gives us a pretty good idea about what the base is thinking and for us to set some policy moving forward.''

Berlon said the bipartisan interest in ethics should be a wake-up call for lawmakers.

``I think the vast majority of Georgians would be really interested in ethics reform,'' he said. ``That's going to dictate to the Republicans in the Legislature what they really need to address.''
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