For the first time since the early 1990s, lawmakers are officially studying the merits of bringing a state lottery to Mississippi.
The House committee, formed by House Speaker Philip Gunn, met publicly for the first time Thursday at the Capitol.
Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach and House Gaming chairman, highlighted that the committee’s purpose is to present relevant data and lottery practices of other states to the committee and to be “as objective and independent as possible.”
“We are not looking for any particular outcome,” Bennett said. “No one, Speaker Gunn or no one, has asked me or this committee to move in a certain direction whatsoever. It’s very important you don’t jump out here and go into it blind. If it happens, we want it to be done right.”
Bennett’s comments countered a press release that Gunn’s office sent in early May announcing the formation of the committee, which stated the committee’s goal was to discredit lottery supporters.
“The purpose of the study group is to gather information to show that the lottery is not the windfall that all its supporters claim it will be,” Gunn said in that release. “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. 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.”
Gunn, a Baptist deacon who has publicly long opposed a lottery, was not present Thursday.
Other members of the committee on Thursday also maintained that the group does not have one outcome in mind. Reps. Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc, and Nick Bain, D-Corinth, have both opposed lottery legislation in the past. But they said on Thursday they were not given a directive from Gunn.
Rep. Cedric Burnett, D-Tunica, has co-sponsored a bill that would establish a state lottery. George Flaggs, mayor of casino town Vicksburg, opposes a state lottery, but he told the Daily Journal this month his goal is to “find facts.” Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey, another committee member, have remained neutral on the potential for a lottery.
Rep. Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, said Thursday that while he would not personally buy a lottery ticket, many of his constituents want the game and he is keeping an open mind.
“If it’s good for the state, I’m not going to stand in the way,” Johnson said. “Regardless of which way it goes, I’m glad we’re vetting it and spending time to fact-find.”
No Senate members are on the committee, though several senators were present for the hearing.
Mississippi is just one of six states in the country without the game. Legislative leaders, facing less revenue than projected and smaller budgets for most state agencies, are looking for unique ways to bring additional money into the state coffers.
Thursday’s meeting was informational in nature, and there was no debate over whether the Legislature should bring the game to Mississippi. The group will hold three more public meetings, and committee members will travel to Louisiana and Arkansas in coming days to see firsthand how those states handle their lotteries.
The committee was presented with background information Thursday about how other states implement the game.
Fourteen states have a standalone lottery agency. Thirteen states place their lottery bureaus inside existing state agencies, like a Gaming Commission or Tourism department. Ten states have an independent lottery commission, and seven states have quasi-public lottery corporations.
Lottery opponents in Mississippi anecdotally argue that the game attracts low-income individuals.
Lawmakers were presented with a nationwide 2016 Gallup survey that showed 40 percent of respondents who purchased lottery tickets in the past year were deemed “low-income,” making $36,000 a year or less. In the same survey, 53 percent were marked “upper-income,” making more than $90,000.
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.
In a complete reversal of philosophy from earlier this year, Gov. Phil Bryant last year wrote in his Executive Budget Recommendation that he is open “to a general discussion about the implementation of a lottery in Mississippi.”
Bryant announced over the weekend he would not include the issue on the June 5 special session call, ending weeks of speculation on the matter.