Mississippi House passes lottery, but don't hold your breath

The House on Thursday passed a likely doomed measure to create a Mississippi lottery, more of a symbolic message to legislative leaders and the public than a real attempt.

However, some legislative leaders indicate a real lottery vote may be forthcoming later in this session.

"We already have a lottery in Mississippi, it's just in Louisiana and Tennessee and surrounding states," said Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston. "The money is there, it's just being spent in other states. Sometimes, it's a good thing to listen to the people, and they want a lottery. This is truly where the rubber meets the road."

Longtime lottery advocate Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, offered a successful amendment to the annual appropriation bill for the state Gaming Commission. It would require the Legislature to create a lottery before the commission would be funded. The House passed it 88-26 over objections from budget leaders that it was not a proper "vehicle" for a lottery, and that if one were to pass, the Gaming Commission likely wouldn't oversee it. 

"The people of Mississippi want a lottery," Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, shouted loudly from the House podium. "How long, oh Lord, how long ...? Nobody's going to hold an AK up to your head and make you buy a lottery ticket."

However, Rep. Casey Eure, R-Biloxi, who handled the appropriations bill and urged lawmakers not to add a lottery to it, told lottery supporters to be patient.

"Personally, I do support the lottery and I believe before the end of this session we will see a lottery, but this is not the bill," Eure said. 

Recently, Sen. Philip Moran, R-Kiln, an ardent supporter of a lottery in the Senate, likewise indicated he believes a lottery vote may be forthcoming by session's end. But the Senate leadership earlier this session allowed a lottery bill Moran authored to die in committee without a vote.

Moran said recent polling shows nearly 70 percent of Mississippians support a lottery. In 1992, when it was put before voters, 53 percent voted to remove a provision in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution banning lotteries. The Legislature has never changed state law to create one.

Opponents, including some religious leaders, say a lottery would amount to allowing gambling statewide instead of just in the limited areas that allow casinos, and that it would lead to social and economic problems.

House Speaker Philip Gunn opposes a lottery. Last year, he helped create a special panel to study whether a lottery would be good for the state. The panel worked through the summer and submitted a report to Gunn before this session started in January, but he has sat on the report.

"They must have found some pretty good results (of a lottery) if we didn't hear anything about it," said Rep. Michael Evans, D-Preston.

One finding the House lottery study group made early in public hearings last year was that similarly situated Arkansas netted $71.9 million in fiscal 2015 and $85.4 million in fiscal 2016 from its relatively new lottery.

Numerous lottery supporters, including Gov. Phil Bryant and Attorney General Jim Hood, have pointed to Arkansas' take from a lottery as a good reason to have one here.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has said he personally opposes a lottery, but that he realizes he's in a minority in the Senate with that opinion. He has not further clarified this, but many took this as an indication he would allow a lottery vote this year, but his leadership killed Senate lottery bills without a vote.

Gunn had indicated he realizes there is widespread support for a lottery and, "I'm open to looking at it," but said he doesn't want such a proposal to start in the House.

Opponents of a lottery say it would disproportionately hurt poor people financially, and that it would only shift money around in the state economy and state revenue, not provide a windfall.