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Voters back limits on lobbyist spending

ELECTION CENTRAL

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ATLANTA (AP) — Republican and Democratic voters said overwhelming Tuesday that they want to limit the gifts that lobbyists give to influence Georgia state lawmakers.

That issue was among several nonbinding questions that appeared on Republican and Democratic primary ballots. The outcome will not change state law, but it gives politicians a rough measure of public sentiment.

Other questions on the Republican ballot included whether Georgia should allow casino gambling if the proceeds support the education system. The outcome of that vote was too close to call late Tuesday. Late returns showed that just over half of Republican voters supported casino gambling, with 96 percent of precincts reporting.

More than 66 percent of GOP voters backed a nonbinding question asking whether they wanted to amend the Georgia Constitution to define life as starting at conception, a change that could effectively ban abortion if it went forward.

Proponents of limiting lobbyist spending hope the results will put political pressure on lawmakers to enact a cap on gifts.

"I think it is unprecedented for a legislative idea to have this kind of popular mandate," said state Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, who led an unsuccessful attempt to set a spending cap this year. "I mean, to have three-quarters of a million Georgians to vote in favor of ending the anything-goes culture of the capital is, I think, a political earthquake."

Early counts from both races showed that around 81 percent of voters, or more than 1 million people, supported setting some kind of limit on what lobbyists can spend.

According to unofficial tallies, 87 percent of voters in the Republican primary said they wanted to set a $100 limit on gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers. About 71 percent of Democrats supported setting some form of limits, although their ballot question did not mention a specific spending cap.

Burton Carey, 62, of Woodstock supported the $100 cap on lobbyist gifts. He said he considers lobbyist spending as bribes, even if it is legal.

"When they give you large sums of money, it breaks down the moral character of the politician that we're putting in office," Carey said. "And they feel obligated to the lobbyists to do things for the expensive gifts they give them."

Right now, lobbyists can give gifts of any value, but they must publicly disclose their spending. Several bills that would have limited lobbyist spending failed in the General Assembly this year. Supporters of a cap said they will use Tuesday's vote as leverage with lawmakers who have been reluctant to embrace the idea.

Powerful lawmakers still oppose the cap. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has criticized the proposed cap by saying it is backed by liberal groups and media elites. He has also said that enacting a cap would drive lobbyist spending underground where the public cannot track it. No member of his leadership team signed onto a public pledge to support lobbying limits.

Lobbyists have spent more than $5,300 on Ralston so far this year, according to spending reports filed with the state's ethics commission. Those gifts included hotel lodging, baseball tickets and meals.

"The speaker continues to advocate for true ethics reform, but has serious reservations about supporting gimmicks cloaked as ethics reform and sold to Georgians as a way to help restore the public's trust in government," Ralston spokesman Marshall Guest said in a statement before the polls closed. Ralston did not return a message left through his spokesman seeking comment on the outcome of the vote.

The GOP ballot question on gambling asks whether Georgians would back casino gambling if the funds supported education.

It comes after developer Dan O'Leary unveiled a $1 billion plan to build a gambling complex in Norcross, part of suburban Atlanta. The complex would feature video lottery terminals, which resemble slot machines but are run by the Georgia Lottery Commission. O'Leary has said the lottery terminals are already allowed under state law and need only approval from the commission.

Commission Chairman James Braswell said in April that he would not consider the project without the support of elected leaders.