Speaker Gunn forms commission to discredit state lottery

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Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn in his office at the State Capitol.

After months of debate over whether a state lottery could boost lagging revenue collections, House Speaker Philip Gunn formed a lottery study commission this week to discredit the legitimacy of the game and its supporters.

Gunn, a Baptist deacon who has continually spoken against adopting a lottery, tasked the eight-member commission “to gather information to show that the lottery is not the windfall that all its supporters claim it will be.”

In a statement announcing the study group, which met for the first time Wednesday, Gunn said a state lottery “violates a number of conservative, Republican principles.”

“I have not had anyone who has voiced support for the lottery provide me with any documentation showing why or how it is a good thing,” Gunn said in a statement. “At the very least, I hope the findings from this group will provide us with information upon which we can make an informed, reasoned decision.”

Mississippi is one of six states without a state lottery. Alabama is the only other Southern state without any variation of the game.

Several bills and amendments that would have created a state lottery failed this past session. Late in the 2017 session, the House killed an amendment to a bond bill that would have created a lottery. The amendment died on a voice vote.

In an interview the day after the session ended, Gunn hinted that he would create the commission to “gather info for my own benefit.”

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 11 regular legislative sessions, about 50 bills that would have created a state lottery died in committee.

Rogelio V. Solis, AP

Gov. Phil Bryant

In a reversal of philosophy from early in his political career, Gov. Phil Bryant has publicly supported the idea of a lottery in recent months. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves has never shot down the idea of a lottery, but he has 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 in August.

In preparation for his most recent budget proposal, Bryant asked the Department of Revenue to estimate how much revenue the state could haul in per year. The department looked at Arkansas, a state with similar population and income levels, which colllected $72.6 million from the game last fiscal year.

The Department of Revenue’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, who will serve on Gunn’s commission, told Mississippi Today last year 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.

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, serves as chairman of the House Gaming committee and is close with casino lobbyists. Bennett, who will also serve on Gunn’s commission, introduced a bill in 2016 that would allow multi-state lottery games to be played inside existing gaming establishments.

Many religious people in the state are conflicted about the issue.

The Mississippi Catholic Diocese “would neither endorse nor oppose a lottery,” diocese spokeswoman Maureen Smith said late last year. The Mississippi Baptist Convention, which represents the largest Christian denomination in the state, is “inalterably opposed” to gambling in any form, spokesman William Perkins told Mississippi Today.

“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 last year. “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.”

Gunn’s commission met for the first time on Wednesday in an unannounced meeting. According to the release from Gunn’s office, the House speaker “charged them with examining a series of questions in the following categories as they relate to a lottery: background issues, operational issues, social issues and economic issues.”

Members of the commission include: Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach and House Gaming chairman; Rep. Nick Bain, D-Corinth; Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg; Rep. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc; Rep. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica; Mississippi Gaming Commissioner Allen Godfrey; Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs; PEER Director James Barber and Special Assistant to the Attorney General and Counsel to the Mississippi Gaming Commission Lou Frascogna (as needed).