OPINION: Lottery bill: State gave away store to casino interests

By Sid Salter

Casino gaming was a $2.4 billion industry in Mississippi in 2009 – and the casinos, like everyone else, had a down year.
But across the South, legal gambling in all forms is growing. As Mississippi once again sees a lottery bill introduced – this time by State Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson – the traditional unintended coalition rises to stop talk of a state lottery before it begins.
The unintended coalition is comprised of the existing casinos companies, their business friends, the political power structure loyal to both groups and the state’s churches.
But as this state prepares to say “no” once again – and it will – to a state lottery to provide university scholarships like all the states but one that border Mississippi, it might be wise to consider that neighboring or nearby states aren’t protecting their existing gambling interests.
Florida is already in the charitable gaming, Native American gaming, lottery, pari–mutuel wagering, and racetrack casino games to the tune of some $7 billion annually, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper. The only thing Florida doesn’t currently operate is commercial casinos like those on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Mississippi River.
But some Florida lawmakers are beginning a serious push in that direction – inspired by the push for a state gambling deal between Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Indian tribe.
And consider the rest of the South and the state’s gaming competition:
– In the South, Mississippi and Louisiana are the only two states with commercial casinos.
– Native American gaming interests operate in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
– Lotteries operate in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee.
n Pari–mutuel wagering (horse or greyhound racing) is legal in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana.
– Racetrack casinos are legal in Florida and Louisiana.
– Charitable gaming (bingo or electronic gaming and poker machines) are legal in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
In response to Clarke’s lottery legislation, Gov. Haley Barbour repeated his steady opposition to a state lottery. Barbour says he doesn’t like the idea of the state luring citizens to play the lottery and that he believes a lottery would “cannibalize” existing casinos gross receipts.
Mississippi’s churches – consistently – say Mississippi already has too much gambling and doesn’t need any more. Those voices point out that while the casinos are isolated, lottery ticket sales would be in every community in Mississippi.
One piece of information missing from the debate is that Mississippi – in comparison with other states that have commercial casinos – has the second-lowest state gaming tax rate in the country behind only Nevada. Mississippi levies a 12 percent tax rate on gross casino gaming revenues, of which 8 percent goes to the state and 4 percent to local governments. Louisiana levies 21.5 percent – plus another 4 percent local tax.
With over a million fewer gamblers visiting 11 fewer casinos in 2008, Louisiana took in $137 million less in gross gaming receipts and yet collected $300 million more in total annual gaming tax receipts than did Mississippi. No wonder the casinos like Mississippi. We’re easy pickings.

Contact Sid Salter, Clarion-Ledger Perspective editor, at (601) 961–7084 or e–mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.