By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – A state lottery – one of Mississippi’s most contentious issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s – could resurface in the coming weeks.
House Gaming Chair Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, was quoted in media reports saying he plans to hold fact-finding hearings on the issue of a state lottery before the 2013 session begins.
But based on the response of some of the state’s top political leaders, it appears unlikely that the issue will go further than a fact-finding hearing.
Both House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate, as well as Gov. Phil Bryant, in recent days have gone on record as being opposed to the lottery.
Gunn, who said he was not aware of any potential committee hearing on the issue, said, “I don’t think it (lottery) is a proper way to raise money. I will just leave it at that.”
Spokespersons for both Bryant and Reeves said they oppose the lottery.
“Lt. Gov. Reeves does not see the need for a lottery in Mississippi,” said Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp.
LOOKING TO LIFT THE BAN
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the issue of the lottery was at the forefront of the Mississippi Legislature. Then-Gov. Ray Mabus supported a statewide lottery to help pay for his education reform proposals.
But at the time, the Mississippi Constitution banned the state from enacting a lottery. Mabus was unable to get the two-thirds majority needed in each chamber of the Legislature to get the issue of removing the ban placed on the election ballot.
Finally, after Mabus left office, the issue did make the election ballot – in November 1992 – where the proposal to remove the ban from the Constitution was approved by 53 percent of the voters.
With the ban lifted, it was up to the Legislature to pass a bill to enact the lottery. The lottery ban passed statewide by 6 percentage points – thanks primarily to large support in Jackson and on the Gulf Coast and in areas with high concentration of African-American voters, such as the Mississippi Delta.
But an analysis revealed there were more votes against lifting the ban in a majority of the legislative districts. Because many legislators said they would vote like their districts did instead of how voters statewide did, efforts to enact a statewide lottery were unsuccessful.
Plus, Kirk Fordice, who succeeded Mabus as governor, pledged to veto any legislation to create a lottery. It would have taken a two-thirds majority of both chambers to override a gubernatorial veto.
REJECTED IN REGION
Northeast Mississippi voted overwhelmingly against lifting the ban. Thirteen of the 16 counties comprising the region voted against lifting the ban, and most of the area’s legislative delegation opposed the lottery.
The proposal to lift the lottery ban was rejected by Lee County voters by a 11,868 to 7,200 margin. Only five counties had more people voting against lifting the lottery ban – Hinds, Rankin, DeSoto, Harrison and Jackson. And in all of those counties, which have much larger populations than Lee, a majority of the voters favored lifting the ban.
After the efforts to enact a lottery were rejected by the 1993 Legislature – despite the statewide voter approval – the issue began to lost steam. One key reason the lottery lost its prominence as an issue is that casino gambling – which was legalized by the state in the early 1990s – grew rapidly. Also, it is generally believed that casino operators, who gained influence in the state, opposed the lottery because it would compete with the casinos for the same dollars.
Legislation is filed each year to enact a statewide lottery, but it never makes it out of committee. During the 2012 session, at least three lottery bills were filed – all with the intent of providing more funds for education.
Supporters point out that many Mississippians now cross state lines into Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas to purchase lottery tickets. They say those funds could be going to Mississippi schools.
According to USA.gov, 43 states and the District of Columbia now have lotteries.
But that figure has not convinced many Mississippi leaders – especially those from Northeast Mississippi.
“I would not be for it,” said Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont. “It takes a lot out of the community.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who was one of the most vocal opponents during the height of the lottery debate, said, “I don’t think the proper role of government is to encourage its citizens to spend their money unwisely. That is what the lottery does.”