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Governor has no plans to introduce legislation

Locals concerned with rumor state may usurp gaming revenue

There’s a rumor making the rounds of gaming and political circles that the state wants some of the gaming taxes paid to cities. Municipalities and counties where casinos are located retain varying percentages of taxes generated from gaming revenues to fund costs of added infrastructure and services associated with growth from gaming.

Who or what organization is behind this rumor? As Rep. Diane Peranich, a member of the State Legislature from Harrison County, puts it, “No one is claiming that child. The fact that it’s being discussed means it’s being thought about and it makes me wonder.”

Chairman of the House gaming committee, Rep. Bobby Moak of Bogue Chitto, said, “It sounds like it’s coming from the Governor’s Office to me. This move would strip locals of a tax base they’ve grown accustomed to and I won’t support taking their money.”

However, Pete Smith, spokesman for Gov. Haley Barbour, says unequivocally that the governor has not proposed such a plan and has no plans to propose any legislation to that effect.

“Gov. Barbour has repeatedly put down that rumor,” Smith said. “He has no intention of introducing that idea and doesn’t know who does.”

A member of the Legislature for 21 years, Moak said, “The gaming industry is still growing and with that the infrastructure is still growing to take care of it. We must support that growth.”

Moak, who also chairs the gaming and alcohol subcommittee of the budget-making House Ways and Means Committee, noted that Biloxi has a big casino resort opening next year and several other proposed gaming projects in the works. He says a move to raise the state’s gaming revenue wouldn’t come up until late in the 2005 session, and he knows of no support such a measure has among legislators.

Peranich says taking gaming revenue from coastal cities would bankrupt the community. “Each gaming jurisdiction votes to allow gaming and sets the amount of taxes they retain, knowing full well the tremendous impact gaming has on communities,” she said. “Taking any of that local amount would devastate the Coast. I don’t know where this talk is coming from but it concerns me.”

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway, whose city is home to nine casinos, the most of any state municipality, shares her concern.

“I like to think that what we have going on here in Biloxi shows that we’ve taken advantage of this opportunity called the ‘Mississippi Miracle.’ We’ve used our share of gaming revenue taxes to make the improvements that are vital to sustaining our vibrant economy,” he said, “and we’ve enhanced the opportunities for our citizens and improved our quality of life.”

Of gaming taxes, the state receives 65%, the city of Biloxi 20%, Harrison County 7%, Biloxi Schools 5% and Harrison County Schools 3%. Local improvements have been made in public safety facilities, streets and traffic flow, drainage, public schools, recreation facilities and land-use ordinances that protect important assets like Keesler Air Force Base, the environment and historic neighborhoods.

“We’ve been able to make a significant contribution to the state’s economy, which is money that can be used to improve all communities throughout this state, regardless of whether they are a gaming community,” Mayor Holloway said.

Officials in Tunica County feel the same way. “Statistically, Tunica County has been the poorest county in the United States,” said Daniel Vassel, projects coordinator for the county. “Since the 1990s, Tunica County has contributed significantly to the state instead of being a leech.”

There are no casinos within the corporate limits of the city of Tunica, but nine are located in the county of Tunica and 15,000 people work in the gaming industry there. From those gaming establishments the county receives 4% of tax revenues and the state receives 8%. Those taxes have paid for improvements to the infrastructure of roads, sewer and water and community facilities that have improved the quality of life.

“I have heard the rumor and hope it’s just a rumor,” Vassel said. “The community as a whole would fight such a thing and surrounding areas that also benefit from gaming would too.”

Vicksburg has four casinos and receives $6 million in tax revenues each year, according to Paul Rogers of the city planning department. Property taxes have been lowered, a convention center was built and paid for, and $15 million to $20 million in utility improvements have been made in the 10 years of legalized gaming.

Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre could not be reached, but city employee Buzz Olsen said the city, with only one casino, has also been able to reduce property taxes and make many improvements with gaming revenue.

The Mississippi Gaming Association’s executive director Andy Bourland said the association has no formal position on the matter but they too have heard the rumor.

“It would be of concern to the industry if the state tries to do this,” he said. “Even if the state diverts two, three or four percent of gaming revenues, it won’t solve the state’s budget woes.”

Bourland says infrastructure needs in gaming locations, particularly in Biloxi, where fire, police, education programs and other public services are dependent on gaming taxes make retaining the local share crucial.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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