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Gaming management courses increasingly inevitable

The Mississippi Legislature rushed to provide many millions of dollars to Howard Industries in Jones County, Nissan in Canton and Northrup Grumman in Pascagoula.

But, step-child treatment has consistently been given to one of Mississippi`s leading employers and tax-paying industries. The Legislature has refused, year after year, to allow casino management courses to be offered by state colleges and universities, despite the fact that this has cost Mississippi natives the best-paying casino jobs.

That`s about to change, however, because of a 2002 Mississippi Supreme Court ruling (on an issue concerning the state`s two-year colleges) that upheld the Mississippi College Board as a constitutionally created body whose decisions can`t be vetoed by any state agency, according to College Board member Amy Whitten.

Whitten, and other board members, say that this overrides a 1991 law that forbids the teaching of such courses in the state`s colleges and universities.

“Either this month or in March, the College Board is expected to approve a degree-level program in resort and casino management at Mississippi Southern University,” according to David Potter, Commissioner of Higher Education (and former president of Delta State University).

If approval is given, the degree program will probably be offered this coming fall, Potter said.

“Some other colleges and universities will probably be offering – within existing degree programs – tracks that will include some of the courses now being taught at Tulane`s Mississippi Gulf Coast campus,” Potter added.

Tulane offers six core courses in such subjects as marketing, statistics and legal issues. Accounting, food and beverage management and information systems are among the electives that students can choose.

Some of the management courses taught in Mississippi colleges would be generic but tailored to resort and gaming management, Potter said.

Major opposition to offering the casino-related courses in Mississippi colleges has come from religious groups, particularly the American Family Association and the Mississippi Baptist Convention. These groups are convinced that such courses will teach students how to be blackjack, roulette and craps dealers.

Junior colleges, universities, the College Board and the casinos insist that students won`t be taught how to play gambling games and point out that bills introduced into the Legislature specifically forbid any courses that teach students how to gamble.

They argue that casinos are legitimate businesses in Mississippi and that not allowing Mississippi natives to be trained in casino management means that the best jobs in the casinos have been going to out-of-state residents.

So far, the opposition, led by the religious groups, has blocked every attempt in the Legislature over the years to legalize the courses. Two new bills have been introduced into the current session of the Legislature.

When Beau Rivage opened in Biloxi, it hired some 3,800 employees, most of them from Mississippi. But for higher-paying positions in management, Beau Rivage brought in 400 management personnel from its parent company in Las Vegas.

“Despite having 29 state-licenses casinos,” The Clarion-Ledger reported at the time, “only one employs a Mississippian as a top manager. For that, in part, we can thank our Legislature for not allowing the management training our young people need for this industry.”

In a pure sense, there are no casinos in the State of Mississippi and this is the genesis of the consistent defeat of bills allowing casino management courses to be taught in state colleges.

Every casino along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico is actually on some kind of in-the-water, anchored barge. Hotels, restaurants, night clubs, golf courses are on solid land in the state, but not the places where people play slot machines, roulette, black jack and shoot dice.

This was the only way that casinos could be legalized in such a religious, conservative state, according to legislators.

The law was passed by the 1990 Legislature by means that are still being debated and criticized, at a time when anti-gambling forces were focused on defeating Gov. Ray Mabus’ proposed lottery.

In a study on politics and gambling in the South, John Layman Mason and Michael Nelson of Rhodes College in Memphis concluded that the Legislature`s legalizing casino gambling was done “below the radar.”

The state legalized casinos without public hearings or advance warning. There were no studies or projections on the impact casinos would have on Mississippi. The key battle was fought in the Senate and some senators who voted “yea” later admitted that they didn`t know that, in House-Senate conference, the bill had received major changes from the one they thought they were voting on.

The legislation passed the Senate 22 to 20.

Since then, the religious groups, who didn`t get the chance to oppose that 1990 legalizing bill, have been bitter enemies and successful opponents of any plan to teach casino management courses in Mississippi colleges.

Paul Jones of the Mississippi Baptist Convention`s Christian Action Committee (CAC) has warned legislators that “We can only interpret a vote for the bill [to approve the courses] as a vote for the expansion of gambling-related activities.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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