COVINGTON -- Charter schools and ethics reform were the top issues discussed by Democratic candidates for State House District 113 at a forum held by the Newton County Democratic Party on Tuesday evening at Washington Street Community Center.
A non-binding question on the Democratic General Primary ballot asks residents whether the Georgia Constitution should be amended to allow the state to override the locally-elected school boards' decisions when it comes to the creation of charter schools. Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill enabling funding for state charter schools earlier this year. The bill will only go into effect if the constitutional amendment gains approval in the November General Election.
Incumbent Pam Dickerson said she, in keeping with the wishes of the school boards in her district, is against the proposal, which she said strips local boards of education of their powers.
"If they want to fund charter schools, let them fund public schools so we can have better public schools and the teachers have the tools they need to teach," she said.
Sharon Sawyer said that teachers at charter schools are not required to meet the same qualifications as teachers in public schools.
"If taxpayer money is needed to fund charter schools, they need the same regulations," she said.
Former House Rep. Toney Collins, who lost his bid for re-election to District 95 in 2010 and is running again for the newly formed District 113, said he supports the amendment because he said charter schools can "penetrate" specific areas where children need support. He said if charter schools are not limited to the rich or certain segments of the population, they can be good for students.
"The amendment is fair and as long as it does not discriminate, I'm fine," he said.
All three candidates said they are in favor of ethics reform and imposing limits on gifts lobbyists can give to legislators, another non-binding question appearing on both the Democratic and Republican Primary ballots.
Dickerson said Georgia is one of three states that has no limits on gifts lobbyists can give to lawmakers and she is in favor of having limits.
Sawyer agreed, and said there should be full disclosure on what legislators receive from lobbyists. Collins went a step further, saying said he will not take gifts from lobbyists.
"We shouldn't have to accept gifts in order to do the will of the people. The best thing to do with lobbyists is don't take their money. If you don't take their money, you don't have to worry about them," he said.
Dickerson said she was the only freshman representative to get a bill passed in the House -- HB 681, which exempts certain food establishments from government regulations when providing food for nonprofit organizations. The bill did not make it out of the Senate Rules Committee. Dickerson said she was one of five Democrats chosen by the Speaker of the House to attend the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government Leadership Institute. Dickerson also touted her proposed legislation dealing with cyberbullying. She sponsored HB 680 that would make it a misdemeanor when an unknowing person is identified in an obscene depiction. This bill was prompted by Newton County resident Randy Upton, whose teenage daughter was the victim of a person who digitally altered her image to appear as pornography online. The bill did not make it out of committee this session and Dickerson plans to reintroduce it next year.
She said she plans to continue hosting town hall meetings and sending email blasts to keep constituents updated on what's happening under the Gold Dome, and noted she has held a women's health fair and cyberbullying forum for constituents during her term.
Meanwhile, Sawyer, a resident of Newton, emphasized that she is the "hometown candidate." She said she has an advantage because she already knows members of the county commission, city council, board of education and other local groups.
"I know where you live and in most cases I know where you work, worship and where you play. I live here and pay taxes here. Those who know me see me as I am: accessible. Do you want someone who does not live here to make decisions for you at the state level?" she said.
Collins said he has been appointed by the governor to the Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council, which promotes and plans statewide activities advocating King's principles and teachings. Collins said he would like to get residents from the district involved in the council. He also pledged to be open to feedback from residents."The best way to serve the people of the district is to get out there and talk to them and find out what they need and what they want and what they've asked for that they haven't gotten," he said.
The new district includes the eastern portion of Rockdale County and the western portion of Newton County. No Republicans qualified for District 113.
Staff Correspondent Aimee Jones contributed to this story.