By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – By all accounts, Mississippians by droves participated in the $1.6 billion Powerball lottery that was awarded this past week, but the state of Mississippi did not participate.
Mississippi is one of six states that does not conduct a lottery. The others are Alabama, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii and Alaska.
But, according to many people, the fact the state does not have a lottery does not mean Mississippians were not vying for the record jackpot.
Supporters of the lottery say the state of Mississippi just was not reaping any of the benefits of the Powerball lottery frenzy.
“I live in a river town,” said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. “The amount of people crossing the river to purchase lottery tickets would have produced enough revenue to have made a difference for public education funding.
“And I am just talking about Natchez. That is all along the (Mississippi) River.”
Rep. Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona, said, “A lot of money is leaving Mississippi going to other places.”
The attention created by the record Powerball payout has created new interest in the Mississippi Legislature for a state lottery.
Gulf Coast senators gave all of their colleagues a Powerball ticket in an effort to build good will toward the lottery. And there is talk of a concerted effort to try to pass legislation creating a lottery.
But, in reality, it is not likely that such legislation will get far.
“Right now, Mississippi requires gambling institutions to provide real economic impact,” said Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who presides over the Senate. “A casino can provide hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars of investment through hotels, restaurants and shops. A lottery doesn’t provide those benefits. I believe that is why the Legislature has not embraced lotteries.”
And Gov. Phil Bryant did not mince any words.
“I am not for it,” he said.
Bryant and others contend the lottery does not generate new revenue. Instead people just redirect their spending to a lottery from other activities, which already are taxed by the state. Plus many believe people who can least afford it purchase the bulk of the lottery tickets.
But supporters of the lottery contend it could generate much-needed revenue for a cash-strapped state education system.
But Bryant said, “I think it sends the wrong signal to schoolchildren to say education funding is dependent on a game of chance.”
Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who often is at odds with Reeves and Bryant, agrees with them on the lottery. He said the revenue produced by a lottery will be insignificant when compared to the negative impact on the state of a lottery. He said the tax cuts being considered this year would take much more money out of the general fund than a lottery would produce.
Through the years, much of the opposition to the lottery has come from Northeast Mississippians, such as Bryan.
In 1992, thanks in large part to the advocacy of former Gov. Ray Mabus, the Legislature placed on the ballot an amendment to remove the lottery ban that was in the Mississippi Constitution.
The proposal to lift the ban passed 481,848 to 427,335. But the only counties in Northeast Mississippi to vote in favor of lifting the ban were Clay, Oktibbeha and Marshall and all did so by narrow margins.
The other 13 Northeast Mississippi counties voted to keep the ban in place – in some counties by large margins, For instance, Lee voted for the ban by a 11,868 to 7,200 margin. And in some Northeast counties, such as Pontotoc, Prentiss and Union, residents voted to keep the ban by nearly a two-to-one margin.
After the ban was lifted by the statewide referendum, legislative efforts to put a lottery in place were unsuccessful. Northeast Mississippi legislators were some of the most vocal opponents of the lottery in the 1990s after the ban was lifted.
Most Northeast Mississippi legislators today seem to remain lukewarm to the lottery.
“I would consider the lottery if the money was going to be earmarked specifically for kindergarten through 12 education and community colleges,” said Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown. “…That is the only way I would support it.”
And even then, McMahan was not a certain vote.
“I am undecided,” said Sen. Bill Stone, D-Holly Springs. “I see the line of cars cross into Tennessee to buy tickets. But I don’t know.”
Sen. Russell Jolly, D-Houston, also said he was not sure before finally saying, “I am going to go by what the people in my district want.”
Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, though, said “I am an unapologetic supporter of the lottery. I see it as a wonderful opportunity to carve out funding for public education.”
Rep. Margaret Ellis Rogers, R-New Albany, questioned whether a lottery would just divert funds away from the state’s casino gambling industry.
Indeed, it is often said that the Baptists and the gambling industry have joined forces to block the industry.
Whomever the opponents are, thus far they have been successful.