State Senate candidates discuss legal gambling, medical marijuana and religious freedom

Matt Hamilton/The Daily Citizen

Debby Peppers speaks as Chuck Payne listens during Tuesday's candidates forum sponsored by The Daily Citizen and the League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area.

DALTON, Ga. — A proposed amendment to the Georgia Constitution to allow casino gambling may have stalled in the last session of the Legislature, but proponents say they'll be back again in the session that starts in January. So the winner of the Jan. 10 nonpartisan special election runoff for state Senate District 54 may well get a voice on that measure.

And Tuesday night, the candidates in the runoff staked out different positions on the issue.

Chuck Payne, former chairman of the Whitfield County Republican Party, says he opposes legalizing gambling for the same reason he opposed the state lottery more than 20 years ago: it hurts the poor.

"Bob Shaw doesn't go buy $100 worth of tickets on payday," he said. Shaw is the founder and chairman of Engineered Floors and was the co-founder and long-time CEO of Shaw Industries.

Payne said poor people, desperate to escape their condition, will gamble money to the detriment of their families and children.

Debby Peppers, a former member of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, said she doesn't "have strong feelings" either way on gambling.

"If they put it on the ballot and people vote for it, I can live with that," she said.

But she said she would fight to make sure voters get accurate information on the impact of gambling and what any constitutional amendment to allow it would involve.

The two spoke at a forum hosted by The Daily Citizen and the League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area at Dalton City Hall.

Both candidates expressed cautious support for expanded legalization of medical marijuana .

Payne said a friend of his, a member of the Legislature, has a daughter with a condition that can be alleviated by medical marijuana "and he has proven to me" the need for medical marijuana.

But Payne said he wants to make sure any further legalization of medical marijuana has safeguards to prevent it from being used by those who do not need it.

Peppers said if she had a child that could be helped by medical marijuana she would do what she could to make sure that child had access to it.

"We need to do all that we can to help (those with conditions that can be treated with medical marijuana)," she said.

Asked how she would vote if the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Nathan Deal, comes back before the Legislature next year, Peppers said that if it mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, she could support it. But she said she would not support any bill that allows discrimination.

Payne noted that the federal act was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton and there was no evidence that it has been used to discriminate against anyone.

Later, when Payne was asked to cite an issue or bill where he took a different position than Deal, Payne cited the governor's veto of the religious freedom act.

In the nonpartisan race, candidates were allowed to list a party affiliation when qualifying. Payne listed Republican, while Peppers did not list a party affiliation.

She said Tuesday she did so because she wanted voters to judge her without a label by her name. But she said she has been a Democrat all of her life and would caucus with the Democrats if elected. Peppers noted a number of tax increases and fee increases passed by the Legislature since Republicans gained control more than a decade ago and said if voters elect someone just because of an "R" beside their name they can expect more of the same. She said she would consider each issue on its merits.

Early voting begins Tuesday. Voters do not have to have voted in the special election to vote in the runoff.

The special election is being held because former state senator Charlie Bethel, a Republican from Dalton, was appointed by Deal to the Georgia Court of Appeals following Bethel's re-election in November. Bethel assumes his new duties on Jan. 1. The 54th District includes all of Whitfield and Murray counties and parts of Gordon and Pickens counties.

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