CHARLIE MITCHELL: City and state spending of casino cash due for review

By Charlie Mitchell

OXFORD – If a casino had been born this week in 1990, it would now be old enough to … well … go to a casino.
As hard as it is to fathom, the legality of gambling in Mississippi has now reached 21, the age of majority (and the tally thousands of blackjack players yearn to hit while flocked around tables 24 hours a day, seven days a week).
Even harder to accept is that a child born this week in 1990 does not remember a time when casinos were not abundant along the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico or, for that matter, the two casinos operated near Philadelphia by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.
The Choctaw development, Pearl River Resorts, is exempt from state gaming taxes.
The other developments, nearly 30 of them, are not.
In general terms, state and local governments have kept 12 cents of every dollar patrons have left at the parlors of chance.
In specific terms, the public take on the private losses now totals $4,818,779,404.48. Spelled out, that’s four billion, eight hundred eighteen million, seven hundred seventy-nine thousand, four hundred and four dollars and forty-eight cents.
And the question of the day is – or could be – where is it?
The answer, of course, is “gone.”
And not only that, the state could use a lot more cash to make up for reduced allocations to myriad spending categories and increasing demand for health-care dollars.
Still, people wonder where the money went, and with good reason – especially in casino communities.
The history is well-known. There was no discussion or debate in the Legislature about whether Mississippi should become a mini-Las Vegas. There was no study predicting the effects. At the time, Mississippi voters would laugh at any candidate who mentioned a state lottery as a revenue-raiser and a case was pending before the state Supreme Court on whether bingo games for charity violated a section of the state Constitution.
Yet out of nowhere (seemingly), there it was. The Mississippi Gaming Control Act of 1990. Even rank and file (and some senior) members of the Legislature thought they were merely amending or slightly expanding the provisions that allowed limited games of chance during water excursions.
The first casino did not open until August 1992, but from the start it was clear the state – where talk of a lottery is still taboo – was onto something big.
Fast forward until today, and here is the nut of it: Cities, counties and the state have banked $29,000 per hour in “found money” every hour of every day for the past 19 years. Also on the plus side of the ledger are about 25,000 jobs and the payroll taxes they generate. There’s a lot more. Casinos provide property taxes based on the value of their developments along with forking over the sales taxes on meals and hotels. (Even when the food and rooms are given away, the state collects taxes on their value.)
On a pie chart of the state’s general fund income, the gambling-related revenue from casinos is far from dominant. It’s at 3 percent, right along with taxes on insurance premiums, gasoline, alcohol, cigarettes and other “incidentals.”
It is at the local level where the impact has (or could be) more profound. There are local variations, but about 4 percent of the total take goes back to the cities and counties where the casinos are actually located. The impact ranges from profound in Tunica to extremely helpful in more populated areas such as Gulfport and Biloxi. In Vicksburg, where there are five casinos, city government gets a third of its budget from “the boats.”
And that leads to a question: Even if the state continues to regard casino taxes as all-purpose revenue, should local governments do the same? Now that casinos have “come of age,” it seems localities might do an accounting and, if appropriate, refocus. Folks might enjoy more specific, quality-of-life evidence of this bonanza.
Taxpayers, as is true everywhere, have heard time and again that a new revenue stream such as casinos or liquor or lotteries will solve all problems. We’re told that slight adjustments or “taxing the rich” will take care of everything.
And then the money comes and goes and not much changes.
While it is in the nature of government to grow, it could be in the nature of voters – at least at the local level – to ask for specific, targeted use of the cash casino customers keep providing.
A new park, a new school, a library … something to show for 21 years and almost $5 billion given to the people – almost by accident.
It could be considered a birthday present.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email cmitchell43@yahoo.com.