Lottery intrigue takes another circuitous jaunt down an old political road
By Sid Salter
So, gentle reader, would Mississippi voters approve a state lottery were they to be given a chance to vote on the issue.
In a phrase, bet on it. Yes. As far back 1992, polling in Mississippi has demonstrated the public’s measurable appetite for a state lottery. That year, Mississippi State University Professor Steve Shaffer’s research identified 62 percent support for a state lottery — with other prior polls showing support for a state lottery as high as 72 percent if the proceeds were tied to public education.
State government blessed and embraced casino gaming about the same time that much of the state’s lottery polling was conducted. With the inception of legal casino gaming, Mississippi lottery proponents then faced two fundamental political narratives opposing adoption of a state lottery in the Magnolia State.
First, there were religious objections. Mississippi churchmen (and women) dutifully and sincerely opposed gambling in all forms much as they had opposed legal alcohol in all forms. In a state with the most churches per capita, religious opposition to most anything is a powerful and pervasive political force.
Mississippi’s churches – consistently – say Mississippi already has too much gambling and does not need any more. Those voices point out that while the casinos are isolated, lottery ticket sales would be in every community in Mississippi.
One Mississippian entrenched in his religious beliefs on the lottery issue is Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton. For the whole of his public career, Gunn has never wavered in his opposition to the lottery. He is not for it. Period.
More about that later.
Second, the advent of legal casino gaming also gave a powerful and monied ally to the state’s churches in their opposition to lotteries — the state’s casino interests. Much like the well-known but little discussed alliances of preachers and bootleggers in local option liquor elections in the states, the lottery energized strange political bedfellow alliances between the churches and the casino operators.
The argument has long been made that Mississippi’s business community should assisting in helping to “protect” the state’s existing gaming interests. But in Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, lawmakers aren’t protecting their existing gambling interests. They are, however, selling Mississippians as many lottery tickets as we will buy and reaping the tax revenue from it to address problems in their states.
Currently, yet another pro-lottery effort is afoot. Gov. Phil Bryant noted his willingness to entertain a lottery in his “State of the State” address. The Legislature seems ready to vote on the issue.
But the lottery has been down this circuitous political path before. While procedural tricks and strategies have advanced the lottery so far in the 2017 session, there’s a lot of “legislatin’” left to be done before Mississippians don’t have to full their car with gas to go across state lines to buy lottery tickets.
What’s driving this renewed lottery debate? Hasn’t State Rep. Alyce Clarke introduced lottery legislation about a million times, only to see her colleagues let it die in committee?
Mississippi’s anemic revenue stream is the reason lawmakers are seriously talking about a lottery in 2017. For Rep. Clarke, the lottery bill is her annual legislative trip to Mecca.
Clarke is a sincere Christian woman with the highest moral and ethical values who nonetheless sees the lines of cars taking Mississippi lottery players to Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida to buy lottery tickets. Clarke wonders — each year for more than a decade now — why a portion of those funds can’t stay in Mississippi to fund highways or education or public health or a host of other needs?
Back to Speaker Gunn. Normally, when a legislative leader at Gunn’s rank opposes a bill, there are powerful forces at work — special interests, lobbyists, big money, etc. — guiding his actions. Like Rep. Clarke, however, for Gunn it’s a simple matter of his conscience and his beliefs.
Time will tell if the odds on a state lottery get shorter in 2017.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.