BILL MINOR: Low times at Mississippi's casinos seen in the budget

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Okay, Mississippians get with it. Roll them bones, feed those slots. You’ve been AWOL on casino row. Last year you let Mississippi drop from third to fourth among the biggest gambling states. Let Indiana get ahead of us. Mind you, a bunch of Hoosiers.
Your state is depending on you to make those casino cash registers jingle. Budgeters need at least $175 million in gaming taxes to help keep government running since the standbys, sales and income, are in the dumper. At least, there was an up-tick in the gaming take in February, but that’s usual because of income tax refunds.
It’s still hard to realize: this year marks 20 years since the Legislature made an end-run around the Mississippi Baptist Convention and surprised everyone by legalizing local option gambling boats which didn’t even have to move. Now, the state has 30 casinos, located in six counties along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast.
As has happened before in Mississippi lawmaking, legal gambling came through the backdoor in 1990. It took two legislative sessions that year to get both Mississippi River and Gulf Coast counties included under a newly authorized State Gaming Commission law.
Here’s how it happened: 1990 was a lean year and the tourist business was suffering. Especially hard-hit was the historic Mississippi River town of Natchez. Veteran Sen. Bob Dearing, a Democrat from Natchez, quietly came to the floor with a bill to help his old town’s tourism business by letting it compete with the new gaming riverboats just started up-river in Iowa. It sounded like just another local and private bill only to help Natchez, with a local option election provision, the kind of bill lawmakers quickly pass as a courtesy to bill’s author.
Dearing’s bill was a little different: it provided for gambling boats to land at Natchez and stay long enough to disembark passengers and pick up new ones, with additional time in port for repairs and to take on supplies. Sounded fine to senators, even arch-foes of any kind of gambling, so the bill flew through, on to the House. (Remember Gov. Ray Mabus had been pushing for a state lottery to finance his ambitious education program, and the Baptists’ forces had been well-drilled to kill a lottery, but didn’t see riverboat casinos coming.)
The surgery done on the Dearing bill in the House, however, is what put Mississippi into the gaming business in a big way. A shrewd House member, Rep. H.L. (Sonny) Merideth of Greenville, fashioned an amendment and won its adoption that literally stripped engines out of the riverboats, let them stay dockside and not move. The bill applied to any county on THE Mississippi River which approved dockside gaming in an election. (The thinking then was only ports on the river – Natchez, Vicksburg and Greenville – would be home to riverboat gaming. Unimagined was that Tunica County, which touched the Mississippi River but had no port, would wind up becoming the biggest gaming county of all. Inventive engineers built a canal inside the levee to carry water from the river’s flood plain, emptying into a big pond where the gaming boat was plopped, thereby technically complying with the law.)
Back to the Senate went the amended bill. To avoid the risk of losing it in a joint conference committee, Senate backers speedily got a vote to concur in the House amendment. Thereby, Mississippi legalized riverboats that don’t have to move from the dock. Reminds you of the old black-market tax collected on illegal booze!
The Gulf Coast immediately began to howl that the state was allowing legal gaming on the Mississippi River but the tourist-dependent coastal counties were shut out. Within a few months the Legislature was back in special session, this time to write a comprehensive gaming regulatory bill and let counties along the Gulf Coast legalize by referendum gaming boats which touched the water. Experts came from Las Vegas to help craft a model law and convince Mississippi lawmakers to keep gaming taxes low (8 cents for the state and 4 cents for the county and city) to attract the big Nevada spenders to invest on the Coast with hotels attached. A huge spending boom was touched off on the Coast in the early and mid-1990s, creating at least 15,000 new well-paying jobs. State coffers were soon bulging as never before.
Ironically, the state gets $250,000 more revenue from Mississippi River casinos than the glitzy ones on Coast.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.