As the gaming industry continues to grow in Mississippi, it wants to make sure that it isn’t taken for granted by legislators, other public officials or state residents.
“When you look at all the counties in the state that have gaming, it isn’t that many,” said Andy Bourland, the new executive director of the Mississippi Gaming Association (MGA). “We just think it is important to stress across the state the impact that the industry has. We would like to begin a significant grassroots program to inform Mississippians about what we believe are the positive impacts of gaming and tourism on the state.”
Bourland, former director of public affairs for Beau Rivage Resorts in Biloxi, comes on board after MGA has been without an executive director through the legislative session. Bourland replaces Ernest Stebbins, who resigned Oct. 29, 1999, to take a job as executive director of his college fraternity.
The MGA, which represents 25 of the state’s 31 casinos, focuses on lobbying and public relations. Bourland said staying tuned into the legislative process is important.
“I think the association is looking at several roles of critical importance,” he said. “The first key area is working closely with the Legislature and the executive branch. In some respects, I think it is an informational and educational issue, keeping them informed about what the industry is about and what we believe are the positive impacts to Mississippi and Mississippians. In addition, I believe you’ll see the industry expand opportunities to talk directly to business and community leaders across the state.”
Bourland said the gaming industry benefits by having a single, unified voice for interactions with the legislative and the executive branch. While lobbyists for different gaming companies work on issues specific to their properties, the MGA provides a point of contact for the entire industry on issues critical to its vitality.
“One of the roles of the executive director is to help coordinate the industry’s position on issues, and be prepared to articulate those positions in a consistent and meaningful way,” Bourland said. “It is important to have a spokesman for the industry that media organizations across the state and country can contact on issues relevant to the entire industry.”
Bourland previously successfully lobbied in the Mississippi Legislature for a bill authorizing a brew pub at Beau Rivage. Bourland came to Mississippi about three years ago, and was one of the first Mirage Resorts executives in the area. Prior to joining Mirage resorts, he was a public affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1997.
“Our members believe Andy combines a knowledge of legislative, governmental and public affairs experience with a broad understanding of the gaming industry,” said Bernie Burkholder, CEO of Treasure Bay Resort and president of the MGA for 2000. “His background and qualifications will help ensure the association is focused on establishing stronger relationships with the state’s elected officials and providing Mississippians with a broader understanding of the industry’s contributions to the state.”
The biggest issue faced by Bourland’s predecessor was the attempt by Elizabeth Stoner to get a statewide referendum on gaming. Stoner launched a voter initiative effort that would have allowed gaming to be outlawed if 60% of the people in a county voted against casinos. The proposed referendum was successfully blocked by a court ruling that the proposal didn’t include a study of economic impact to state government.
The gaming issue that seems to be getting the most attention at present is consideration of raising the gaming tax. Bourland said there was not really any serious discussion of that during the 2000 session of the Legislature.
“However, in the coming years the potential does exist for some movement towards attempting to increase taxes on the industry, and it is paramount for legislators and economic development leaders to understand how dramatically and in a very negative way additional taxes would impact the gaming industry,” Bourland said. “Wall Street analysts look very favorably on the state at present. If the taxation issue becomes volatile, I think you would see a dramatic impact on future development in the state. Secondly, in the case of many of operators in the state, large and small, you would have a very dramatic impact perhaps even to the extreme of putting several out of business. It is that significant of an issue.”
Bourland said he believes that people who suggest raising the gaming tax don’t realize that in addition to the 8% of revenues paid to the general fund of state government, and 4% paid to local government, the casinos also pay property taxes, sales taxes, taxes on each gaming position and millions in tideland’s leases.
“It is much more than the 12%,” Bourland said.
Although there has been discussion of using a gaming tax increase to pay for teacher pay raises in the state, Bourland said the two issues shouldn’t be linked. He said that Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has gone on record not supporting a gaming tax increase for teacher salary increases, and instead is looking at other ways to fund teacher salary increases.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-3457.