With Republicans at the helm, Mississippi softens laws governing gambling and drinking

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Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

A lottery sign outside of Chevron a gas station near the intersection of Ridgewood Road and Adkins Boulevard in Jackson, Miss., Friday, December 13, 2019.

Both Gov. Phil Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who is the governor-elect, are touting Mississippi’s brand new lottery.

“Today is the day Mississippi! You can buy tickets at a certified retailer near you. Please play responsibly,” Bryant wrote last month on social media.

Reeves also chimed in saying, “First day of the Mississippi lottery! And the next step in our special session efforts to invest $80 million every year into our roads and bridges. Play responsibly, and buy your lottery tickets at a certified retailer near you! Best of luck, Mississippi.” Reeves, of course, was referring to the fact that under the bill approved in a 2018 special session to legalize the lottery the first $80 million the state receives in lottery revenue goes to transportation and the remainder to education.

At one point, both of these politicians were opposed to the lottery.

“I think it sends the wrong signal to schoolchildren to say education funding is dependent on a game of chance,” Bryant said as late as 2016.

Bobby Harrison

And Reeves also questioned the wisdom of the lottery, saying casino gambling created jobs for Mississippians, but the lottery does not.

Now both are advertising for the Mississippi lottery. And Reeves, in particular, as the incoming governor, has a vested interest in Mississippians buying lottery tickets. The lottery was passed to keep from having to raise other taxes to repair the state’s crumbling infrastructure. Reeves adamantly opposes raising taxes.

Reeves and Bryant, along with House Speaker Philip Gunn, have overseen dramatic change in laws regarding the so-called vices. During the past eight years, as Republicans have controlled the Governor’s Mansion and both chambers of the Legislature for the first time since the 1800s, multiple laws have been passed to make it easier to get a drink of liquor or a beer, to wager on sporting events and to purchase lottery tickets.

Republicans might be viewed as socially conservative, but that has not stopped them from easing the laws surrounding gambling and drinking.

In the first year Bryant, Reeves and Gunn ascended to power, they changed the law to make it easier to pass local laws to allow for the sale of alcohol. Under the old law, any vote to allow the sale of alcohol had to be countywide. But in 2012, the Legislature passed and the governor signed into law a bill allowing just the city folks to vote.

Since that law was passed, multiple votes have been held in municipalities after the sale of alcohol was rejected in countywide referendums. There are now only nine counties statewide where a person cannot get a drink of liquor and only seven where beer cannot be legally purchased, according to the Department of Revenue website. Benton, Walthall, Webster and Choctaw are the only counties that ban both liquor and beer. Booneville voters in Prentiss County recently approved beer and liquor sales.

And, of course, in 2017, language was sneaked into a bill without nary a word being said to allow sports betting as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not ban states from allowing sports betting. The Court made that ruling in 2018. Legislators said the language allowing sports betting was placed in a bill dealing with fantasy sports betting by mistake, but there was no effort to fix that mistake in later sessions.

The Republican leadership would argue their socially conservative credentials come in their opposition to abortion, gay marriage, anti-gun legislation and the such.

And, it is true that during the past eight years there have been efforts, some successful others not, to restrict abortions, expand guns rights and to prevent gay marriage opponents from having to provide same sex couples services.

All of these issues, of course, boil down to personal choices based on a person’s faith and beliefs.

Perhaps, Noah “Soggy” Sweat said it best in his renown “whiskey speech.” Sweat, an Alcorn County native who served as a state legislator, circuit judge and later University of Mississippi Law School professor, famously said, in part, in the 1952 speech, “If you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation and despair and shame and helplessness and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.”

But, he later said in his whiskey speech, “ If you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm, to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it. This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”