Lottery odds still long, may be improving

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JACKSON – Democratic Rep. Alyce Clarke, who has represented Jackson in the Mississippi Legislature since 1985, is persistent.

She has been an author of legislation to create a lottery in Mississippi every session since 2003. This year, as often is the case, she has two bills filed, one to create a lottery after a statewide vote and another to simply enact the lottery after the passage of her legislation.

Clarke believes lottery revenue could be used to fund a college scholarship program as it is in other states.

“It will help children,” said Clarke, whose lottery bills have never made it out of committee.

This session, which started Tuesday, Clarke and other lottery proponents might have reason for a little more optimism, albeit, only slightly more optimism.

The odds of a lottery passing during the 2017 session are high – probably not as high as winning the powerball – but still high.

But a little additional optimism exists because of the comments of Gov. Phil Bryant, a well established social conservative, in the narrative for his budget proposal released late last year. The Republican governor said he would be open to discussions of a lottery.

Bryant wrote, “While I am open to a lottery discussion, I would be adamantly opposed to dedicating the revenue derived from it to a particular agency or line item, particularly one as important as education. The future of our schoolchildren should not be left to a game of chance.”

The governor said that the Department of Revenue estimates a lottery would generate between $88 million and $100 million in revenue for the state.

In a state where revenue collections have been sluggish for multiple months and numerous agencies have had to absorb budget cuts, that additional revenue would be seen as a windfall.

It could be an important sign to determine how far the governor might go in his support of the lottery by whether he says anything on the topic in his State of the State speech slated for Jan. 17.

But perhaps more important than Bryant’s comments and a reason not to be too optimistic is the legisative chambers’ two presiding officers – House Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves in the Senate.

Gunn, a Baptist church elder, reiterated his opposition to the lottery last week.

“I have previously stated my position clearly – I do not favor a lottery,” Gunn said.

Reeves also has expressed opposition, but has been a little more vague. Reeves questions whether a lottery would generate new revenue for the state or just shift existing revenue because Mississippians would be buying lottery tickets with the same taxable income they were previously spending in other areas.

During the 2016 session, Reeves said, “Right now, Mississippi requires gambling institutions to provide real economic impact. 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.”

Of course, about the same time Reeves made those comments early in the 2016 session, Bryant said flatly he opposed the lottery. So positions can change.

Asked if he wanted to clarify his comments, Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp said his previous statements would stand.

Even with the opposition from Gunn, though, the House voted twice in the 2016 session to enact a lottery by amending bills dealing with gaming issues on the floor. Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, successfully offered an amendment to a bill dealing with fantasy sports gaming to enact a lottery. His amendment marked the first time either chamber of the Mississippi Legislature had approved a lottery proposal.

But the amendments were taken out later in the process. The final version of the fantasy sports legislation hammered out by House and Senate leaders did not include Reynolds’ lottery language.

Until 1992, the state Constitution prohibited lotteries. But that year voters approved an amendment to the Constitution by a 481,848 to 427,335 margin to remove the prohibition. But 13 of the 16 counties in Northeast Mississippi voted against removing the prohibition.

Some say even attitudes in Northeast Mississippi are changing. The most common arguments for change in position on the lottery is that Mississippi is one of only six states in the nation without a lottery and Mississippians are traveling to neighboring lottery states, Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, to purchase tickets, taking money out of the state.

The religious objections continue to be strong, though, equating the lottery with a tax on the poor.

“All my constituents want it,” said Rep. Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville, who voted for the lottery during the 2016 session. But Carpenter said he would want details on any proposal, such as where the revenue would be spent, before committing as a certain “yes” vote in the future.

“I would like to see the revenue go toward roads and bridges,” said Rep. Jody Steverson, D-Ripley, who also voted for the lottery last year.

But Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, said, “I am a Baptist. I am opposed to the lottery, We ought not as a state be in the business of gambling, and I think that is what a lottery is.”

In the meantime, Clarke, who has filed countless bills in favor of enacting a lottery, said “I am much more optimistic and if we could just get a couple of other people on board we could get it done.”

 

Of course, in the legislative process a couple of people, if they preside over the Legislature, can be key.

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