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Lottery buzz shifts from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’

By ADAM GANUCHEAU / Mississippi Today

Laurel resident Pete Blakeney was overcome with a strange urge as he was driving home from New Orleans in January 2015: to stop at a Louisiana gas station and purchase a few lottery tickets.

Blakeney, a religious man who doesn’t play the game often, said he credits God for the spontaneous stop at that gas station just across the Mississippi border. When the Powerball numbers were drawn two days later, he checked his tickets. He had won $1 million.

About a dozen Mississippians have won lotteries in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee in recent years. When Powerball numbers soar, Mississippians flock to border state gas stations to purchase tickets. They can’t play the game here because Mississippi is just one of six states in the nation without any variation of the game.

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 on their own merit at any time. But in the past 10 regular legislative sessions, all 42 proposed bills that would have created a state lottery died in committee.

A change in tone from state leaders in recent weeks, however, might change the prospects for the state’s residents in the near future.

In a complete reversal of philosophy from earlier this year, Gov. Phil Bryant last week wrote in his Executive Budget Recommendation that he is open “to a general discussion about the implementation of a lottery in Mississippi.”

Bryant’s only stipulation, however, is that any revenue generated from the lottery would not be earmarked for one specific line item in the state budget. Instead, the revenue would flow into the general fund. Other states, including the three neighboring states with the game, designate lottery revenues to public education funds.

“The future of our schoolchildren should not left to a game of chance,” Bryant wrote last week.

While revenue collections have dwindled in recent months, an additional revenue stream seems appealing to many state leaders. But other officials have long held concerns over the game: negative political implications, fears that a lottery would pull revenue from a reliable casino gaming industry, and the influence of religious convictions, so often an issue in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Political leaders, like Bryant and several key lawmakers, are changing their tone. Bryant, who said earlier this year he was “not for it,” is willing to consider the game. Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood has expressed interest in a lottery three times this year.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves’ spokeswoman, when asked about his stance on the issue last week, referred back to a statement Reeves made earlier this year in which he did not shoot down the idea, but said he wants to ensure the casino industry wouldn’t be affected.

“If one’s goal is to increase revenue to the state, the question that must be answered: Would any perceived increase in revenue from a lottery be offset by reductions in sales tax collections and gaming receipts?” Reeves said back in August.

In preparation for his budget proposal, Bryant asked the Department of Revenue to estimate how much revenue the state could haul per year. The department looked at Arkansas, a state with similar population and income levels which hauled in $72.6 million from the game last fiscal year.

The Revenue department’s per-year estimate for Bryant’s proposal: between $88 million and $100 million.

The casino industry, which brought Mississippi $2.1 billion in fiscal year 2015, has remained mum on the issue. Mississippi Gaming Commission Executive Director Allen Godfrey said he is not opposed to adopting the game, though further studies would need to be conducted about how much revenue it would bring and how the state would run the new industry.

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