January 9, 2013 - Atlanta, Ga: The statue Miss Freedom sits atop of the gold dome of the Georgia State Capitol at dusk Wednesday evening in Atlanta, Ga., January 9, 2013. The Georgia Capitol completed in 1889, is only days away from the start of the 2013 Legislative Session in the House and Senate Chambers Monday January 14, 2013. JASON GETZ / JGETZ@AJC.COM
Photo: Jason Getz / AJC
Photo: Jason Getz / AJC

Voters: Jobs yes, guns no

On the eve of the 2014 legislative session, Georgia voters are generally pleased with the direction of the GOP-led state but not with one of the lawmakers’ signature proposals to expand access to guns statewide, according to a new poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Voters still feel the sting of the recession. An overwhelming number stressed they want jobs and the economy to be the focus of the Gold Dome this year.

Yet the poll, conducted by Abt SRBI of New York, should give heart to legislators and Gov. Nathan Deal: A strong majority of Georgians are optimistic about the state’s progress.

Fifty-nine percent of all respondents said they are satisfied with the way things are going in Georgia today. Across the board of demographic, age, race and region, only nonwhites failed to produce a majority who are satisfied with the direction Georgia is headed.

Forty-five percent of respondents give lawmakers a positive grade about how the Georgia Legislature is doing its job, compared with 39 percent who do not. The approval rating is impressive, pollsters said, given the dismal rating voters give Congress.

But state legislators face not only a gender gap, but also age and race gaps, as majorities of men and whites approve of the General Assembly’s performance. Women and nonwhite voters are less pleased.

And when it comes to Republican proposals to greatly expand the rights of Georgians to carry guns onto college campuses, into churches and other locations, the poll found voters strongly opposed.

Grover Huckabee, a 69-year-old retiree from Cobb County, is a Republican who calls the planned expansion a bad idea.

“That’s the one area I think would be a total mistake,” said Huckabee, who plans to vote for Deal in November. “Carrying a weapon is a big responsibility. I’m a Vietnam veteran. I carried one for two years.”

But Huckabee also sees positive things on Georgia’s horizon.

“This little island we call Atlanta within the state of Georgia has fared fairly well through this economic crisis,” said Huckabee, a distant cousin of former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. “We’re on the leading edge as far as rebound is concerned.”

That optimism only goes so far, however, as equally strong majorities rate the Georgia economy as not so good or poor. Asked whether their personal financial situation is better than five years ago, fewer than one-third of all respondents said yes. Slightly more said their situation is about the same, and similar percentages said there’s been little change in that time.

The availability of jobs at home saw similarly pessimistic numbers. Only 27 percent said availability of jobs is getting better, while 28 percent said job prospects are worse.

Brittney Rice, 23, who graduated from college in 2012, said the job market still stinks.

“I’m not able to find a job,” Rice said. “Even positions that are called entry-level, they’re asking for people with five years of experience. Nobody really gives you an entry-level position, then you never get the experience.”

Rice, who graduated from Pfeiffer University in North Carolina with dual degrees in communications and journalism, is considering moving to New Jersey, where she thinks jobs are more plentiful.

She doesn’t have much confidence in the General Assembly to do much for her.

“Even if they were to go in there and say we’re trying to get these jobs, it’s going to be more things of what they can make money off of,” Rice said.

Democratic leaders said the results cut through the GOP administration’s claims that business-friendly policies are working.

“The truth is education funding has fallen tremendously in Georgia. Kids are going to school less and getting less out of school. Our transportation system is in a worse place than it was five years ago, and that’s going to lead to more troubles down the road,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker. “People need to realize it’s happening because of a lack of quality decisions by the Republican leadership of this state.”

Given the other numbers, it’s not a surprise, then, that a strong majority — 58 percent — said jobs and the economy are the most important issues facing the state. That number dwarfed all other issues. The quality of public schools was rated the second-most-important issue, but only with 15 percent.

House Majority Whip Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, said lawmakers know there is still pain in the economy.

“We do our best to be responsive to the needs of the economy,” he said. “Governor Deal’s laser focus on creating jobs and stimulating the economy is certainly something we in the Legislature have adopted.

“Georgia remains economically competitive. We can always do a better job, but the state is headed in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, the AJC poll response on guns is a sharp push back against politicians’ plans this election year to notably loosen firearms restrictions in Georgia.

Gun rights advocates have been eager to use their majority in the General Assembly to burnish Georgia’s reputation as one of the friendliest states to gun owners. Lawmakers, who start back to work Monday for a new legislative session, have made clear they plan to prioritize a sweeping gun bill in the first few weeks of work.

That includes a push to undo bans that currently bar guns from the state’s college campuses — a sticking point during last year’s session and still an area of disagreement within the GOP — and in church sanctuaries.

One problem, as the poll makes clear: That’s not what Georgians want.

Among poll respondents, 78 percent opposed allowing guns on the state’s college campuses; 72 percent opposed allowing guns in churches; and 82 percent would mandate any gun owner who wanted to carry a weapon in public to first take a required safety course.

Those numbers stayed relatively consistent among rural and urban residents, and conservative, independent and liberal voters.

Veronica Connell, a Democrat from Chatham County, said college students are much less likely to be ready for that responsibility.

“That’s just asking more trouble,” said Connell, 44. “You may have people who on paper look good. A person’s maturity may not be there. If they feel there is a threat, they may feel amped to use it.”

Put simply, Connell said, no guns in “churches or campuses or anywhere else.”

Pollster Seth Brohinsky of SRBI said the results of the gun questions were unequivocal.

“The consistency of the numbers, it definitely stands out,” he said. “These types of things are common sense and something legislators should take notice of.”

Ramsey, the Republican House leader, said lawmakers can’t set policy based on polling data.

“I”m not totally surprised by the polling numbers,” Ramsey said. “I think we’re gong to continue to work through with various stakeholders. I know the majority party strongly believes in protecting Georgians’ Second Amendment rights.”

The goal, Ramsey said, “is to come up with legislation that hopefully everyone can get on board with.”

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