Laurel resident Pete Blakeney was overcome with a strange urge as he was driving home from New Orleans in January 2015: to stop at a Louisiana gas station and purchase a few lottery tickets.
Blakeney, a religious man who doesn’t play the game often, said he credits God for the spontaneous stop at that gas station just across the Mississippi border. When the Powerball numbers were drawn two days later, he checked his tickets. He had won $1 million.
A recent change in tone from state leaders on prospects for a Mississippi lottery might offer more chances for state residents like Blakeney to gamble closer to home.
Mississippians can’t play the game here because Mississippi is just one of six states left in the nation without any variation of the game. About a dozen Mississippians have won lotteries in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee in recent years. When Powerball numbers soar, Mississippians flock to border state gas stations to purchase tickets.
After 53 percent of Mississippi voters lifted the Constitutional ban on the game in 1992, the path was forged for the Legislature and governor to adopt a state lottery. But in the past 10 regular legislative sessions, all 42 bills that would have created a state lottery died in committee.
In a complete reversal of philosophy from earlier this year, Gov. Phil Bryant last week wrote in his Executive Budget Recommendation that he is open “to a general discussion about the implementation of a lottery in Mississippi.”
Bryant’s only stipulation, however, is that any revenue generated from the lottery would not be earmarked for one specific line item in the state budget. Instead, the revenue would flow into the general fund. Other states, including the three neighboring states with the game, designate lottery revenues to public education funds.
“The future of our schoolchildren should not (be) left to a game of chance,” Bryant wrote last week.
While revenue collections have dwindled in recent months, an additional revenue stream seems appealing to many state leaders. But other officials have long held concerns over the game: negative political implications, fears that a lottery would pull revenue from a reliable casino gaming industry, and the influence of religious convictions, so often an issue in the heart of the Bible Belt.
Political leaders, like Bryant and several key lawmakers, are changing their tone. Bryant, who said earlier this year he was “not for it,” is willing to consider the game. Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has expressed interest in a lottery three times this year.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ spokeswoman, when asked about his stance on the issue last week, referred back to a statement Reeves made earlier this year in which he did not shoot down the idea, but said he wants to ensure the casino industry wouldn’t be affected.
“If one’s goal is to increase revenue to the state, the question that must be answered: Would any perceived increase in revenue from a lottery be offset by reductions in sales tax collections and gaming receipts?” Reeves said back in August.
In preparation for his budget proposal, Bryant asked the Department of Revenue to estimate how much revenue the state could haul per year. The department looked at Arkansas, a state with similar population and income levels which hauled in $72.6 million from the game last fiscal year.
The Revenue department’s per-year estimate for Bryant’s proposal: between $88 million and $100 million.
The casino industry, which brought Mississippi $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2015, has remained mum on the issue. Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey said he is not opposed to adopting the game, though further studies would need to be conducted about how much revenue it would bring and how the state would run the new industry.
Lawmakers who are close to the casino industry have shown some support for the game in recent months. Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi and one of the key players in bringing casino gaming to the state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, sponsored a bill this past session that would establish a state lottery to supplement the Mississippi Adequate Education Program and the maintenance of roads and bridges.
Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, serves as chairman of the House Gaming committee and is close with casino lobbyists. This past session, he introduced a bill that would allow multi-state lottery games to be played inside existing gaming establishments.
Bennett, who did not return calls from Mississippi Today this week, told The Clarion-Ledger earlier this year he’d like to see additional cost-benefit analyses. Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall and chairman of the Senate Finance committee, also did not return calls.
Many religious people in the state are conflicted about the issue. Blakeney said he has no problem with the game “as long as you can afford it and you’re not taking food off the family’s table.”
The Mississippi Catholic Diocese “would neither endorse nor oppose a lottery,” diocese spokeswoman Maureen Smith said this week. The Mississippi Baptist Convention, which represents the largest Christian denomination in the state, is “inalterably opposed” to gambling in any form, spokesman William Perkins said this week.
“The convention is inalterably opposed to gambling in any form because it dehumanizes, it splits marriages, destroys families and in general makes the state spiritually poorer,” Perkins said. “It’s regrettable that the state’s leaders have not learned any lessons from the legalization of alcohol, which was supposed to save the state financially. We were promised an endless stream of revenue from liquor sales, yet we seem to always face budget problems every year, all these years later.”
Even some lawmakers with strong moral convictions oppose it.
“I would be against a lottery every single time,” said Rep. Vince Mangold, R-Brookhaven. “My religious and moral views just don’t support it. No way.”
Others, like House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, oppose it on principle.
“I do not favor a state lottery or the issue coming to the House floor again for a vote,” Gunn said in a statement. “Furthermore, I have not seen any data that shows a lottery would bring any additional income to the State. It is unknown if there would be any financial benefit to Mississippi.”
Still, dozens of state officials, both Republican and Democrat, have recently expressed interest in bringing the game to Mississippi.
In March, Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, successfully proposed an amendment to a separate bill that would have established a state lottery.
The House approved that amendment – 38 Republicans and 43 Democrats voted for the bill, while 34 Republicans and three Democrats voted against it. It later died before going up for final vote, but it marked the closest a lottery bill has gotten to passing either house in recent history.
If the issue comes up in the upcoming legislative session, those who hold onto their political, economic or religious reasons will voice those concerns. But for those who already spend money on the game in border states, a lottery here is long overdue.
“We lose a lot of revenue because we have an awful lot of people traveling outside the state (for tickets),” Blakeney said. “We already have casinos here. If Mississippi had it, we’d have a lot of people from Alabama coming over. I’m all for it.”