Lottery finds little favor among many Northeast Mississippi lawmakers

TUPELO – If a lottery comes to Mississippi, it will likely happen without strong support from the legislative delegation of the state’s northeast corner.

Gambling, like alcohol, has long been politically fraught in a state that tends toward conservative social views from whichever party holds power in Jackson.

But recently, a drumbeat of support in favor of a lottery has grown more pronounced. Gov. Phil Bryant has been a key voice maintaining attention on this issue.

The governor has suggested throughout the summer that a special session may occur in August to take up infrastructure funding, with the creation of a lottery one possible option to generate new revenue.

As of last week’s end, however, no special session call had been issued by the governor.

Recent interviews by the Daily Journal with available legislators in and around Lee County show opinions trending against a lottery.

Opposing a lottery in those interviews were Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn; Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie; Rep. William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville; Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown; Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory and Sen. J.P. Wilemon Jr, D-Belmont.

Offering support for a lottery were Steve Holland, D-Plantersville and Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo.

Sen. Russell Jolly, D-Houston, said he is currently undecided about his stance on a lottery.

Attempts to reach out to other area lawmakers were not successful.

Opponents describe gambling as a negative force in the lives of many that participate in it and do not view it as appropriate to rely on often destructive personal choices to fill state coffers.

“It is not the proper role of the government to operate a numbers racket and swindle its citizens,” said Bryan, a longtime Democratic state senator from Amory.

Resistance to a lottery is also often couched as a moral view or a principled position, with religious faith often a factor informing these views.

“I can’t vote for it,” said Randy Boyd, a Republican representative from Mantachie. “I’m a Baptist.”

Social welfare concerns also crop out, often from Republicans and Democrats alike. Boyd expanded on his faith-based position, describing the lottery as a “tax on the poor,” preying on those lacking sufficient means with promises of an overnight windfall.

Bryan described the lottery as an especially regressive tax and contrasted that with what he sees as recent giveaways by the Republican Party leadership to wealthier taxpayers and private corporations.

Lottery supporters cite polls showing most in the state favor a lottery, as well as Mississippi’s status as one of only six states with no lottery. Also lacking a lottery are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. Voters removed a constitutional prohibition on a lottery in Mississippi in 1992, but the legislature has never enacted one.

Discussions of a lottery also generally invoke the fact that Mississippians are already participating in the lotteries of other states, like neighboring Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas.

“I’m all for it,” said Aguirre, a Republican from Tupelo. “I think it’s something the people want.”

Another relevant factor: Republicans in state government have cut income taxes and generally oppose increasing other taxes, like the gas tax.

In the face of ongoing infrastructure deterioration, some Republicans, the governor among them, have revised prior opposition to things like a lottery as they seek new revenues sources.

After the 2017 session of the state legislature, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, a Republican who opposes a lottery, created a study group to gather data on a lottery.

It found that, during the budget year ending in June 2016, Arkansas had lottery revenue of $85.2 million, Louisiana lottery revenue of $177.9 million and Tennessee lottery revenue of $395 million.

These revenue numbers are after prizes and expenses have been paid.

Regardless of how they fall on the issue, local lawmakers were of fairly one voice as to predicting the fate of lottery legislation if it surfaces in a special session.

It will pass.

“I tell lottery supporters, don’t worry about me,” Boyd said. “It’s going to go through even without my vote.”