Q — Give our readers an overview of the Mississippi Gaming Commission and its role as the state’s gaming regulator.
A — The MGC has the responsibility of overseeing 30 casinos making up a $2.5-billion industry, which employs an estimated 25,000 people. This industry invests billions in property and facilities in our state. In addition, we oversee approximately 74 bingo halls. Our job duties include:
1) keeping the patrons safe from professional cheaters, minors gaming and illegal machines as well as hurricanes and other natural disasters;
2) ensuring the industry is operating and conducting the games fairly and in accordance with the statutes and regulations of the State of Mississippi; and
3) ensuring no felons are allowed to work in the Mississippi regulated casinos or benefit from gaming.
The MGC is a small agency with a big assignment that is known throughout the gaming world for its strict but fair regulation. Gaming generates over $300 million annually to our state and local governments. Over 50 million people visit our casinos every year. Mississippi allows its casinos to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week without betting or loss limits imposed. Rooted in the philosophy of open competition, there is no limit on the number of casino operator’s licenses that can be issued in the state. In recent years, the Legislature has passed laws which allow casinos to be built on pilings and onshore along the Gulf Coast.
Q — In your opinion, what is the current state of the gaming industry in Mississippi?
A — After 17 years of success, Mississippi remains a desirable market even with the struggling economy. Many of the casinos operating here are owned by large corporations that know their success depends on Mississippi’s ability to attract tourists. Patrons are still visiting our casinos; it’s just that their spending has shrunk along with the economy. With some form of gaming available in all but two of the 50 states, people come to Mississippi because of our warm Southern hospitality and the amenities we have to offer. In fact, a few of the casinos along the Gulf Coast are expanding their facilities with an additional investment in excess of $50 million, there are many reasons to be optimistic about gaming in Mississippi in 2010.
Q — For the casino owner, what is involved in the process of obtaining a gaming license?
A — The first step is locating a legal and suitable site. Before a site can be developed, the owner must meet infrastructure requirements and necessary financing to construct the project. Once met, a process of investigations begins. Our enforcement agents and compliance officers work closely with the license applicant through all steps involved. All games and surveillance systems must be tested and approved. This process ensures all laws and regulations are being followed.
Q — There are three gaming commissioners in the state. What is their role with the MGC and how are they selected?
A — The governor appoints the commissioners for four-year terms. At least one of the three must be from a county where gaming is authorized. As in the private sector, the beliefs and standards of any organization are reflected from the top down. Having incorruptible commissioners sets the tone for the entire agency. We are blessed to have three commissioners serving today who are dedicated to integrity, honesty and fairness — Jerry St. Pe’ (our chairman), Nolen Canon and John Hairston. In addition to voting on all matters before the MGC, the commissioners have the task of selecting the executive director. I answer not only to the people of the State of Mississippi but to the commissioners, as well.
Q — What is charitable gaming and to what extent is it regulated?
A — Charitable gaming is basically bingo played for the benefit of an established charity. Similar to casino gaming, there are statutes and regulations that govern the play of charitable bingo. In order to insure the bingo games are being played for the benefit of the charity, the bingo licensee must submit a minimum of 40 percent of its adjusted gross receipts from bingo activities to the charity.
Q — In what ways has the state’s economic slump affected the gaming industry?
A — The economic downturn has affected all segments of the economy; Mississippi casinos are no exception. The properties are using some aggressive and inventive strategies to market their casinos. The casinos have kept their best employees, and have learned to do more with less. The struggling economy has enhanced a sense of cooperation between the properties, their employees and our agency. We are hopeful that the coming year will bring about a return to economic stability. Full recovery could be slow as developers will be hesitant to begin building new properties until confidence is restored in the larger financial markets.
Q — How prevalent are illegal gambling operations in our state? What entails an illegal gambling operation?
A — Unfortunately, illegal gambling is conducted throughout our state. Our agency does not have the staff or resources to adequately address this problem. Instead, the MGC enforcement agents work together with local law enforcement officials in locating and prosecuting those who operate illegal gambling operations. Any gambling except that conducted on an establishment licensed by the MGC is illegal in the state of Mississippi.
Q — What has been your greatest challenge as executive director?
A — My greatest challenge was dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On Aug. 29, 2005, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was changed forever. All 13 casino barges were severely damaged or destroyed as well as their associated amenities. The devastation spanned the length of the Mississippi coast line. The $500,000 generated each day in tax revenue was suddenly gone. All 15,000 casino related jobs gone. Bringing this industry back took a lot of courage, vision and hard work. I was proud to play a small part in rebuilding the Gulf Coast to be a bigger and better resort destination.