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Lottery and aid to localities advance in special session

Mississippi is closer to having a state lottery and diverting existing tax money, all to improve roads and bridges.

The state Senate voted 30-20 on Thursday, the first day of a special session, to pass legislation to create a state lottery, despite questions about the sweeping powers proposed for the lottery corporation in Senate Bill 2001 . Meanwhile, House members voted 108-5 for a plan to divert 35 percent of the state’s current tax on internet and catalog sales to city and county infrastructure needs.

The session will continue Friday, as both chambers consider the bills the other has already passed. Gov. Phil Bryant, who called the session, could also add more items for lawmakers to consider.

Bryant, in a speech before the session started, argued that Mississippi’s transportation problems must be addressed quickly, especially after he had to order the closure of county bridges earlier this year following safety inspections. The state reports that 437 county bridges statewide are closed for safety reasons.

“It’s time to get this done,” Bryant said. “We don’t need to wait another week, another month.”

Others, though, questioned a bill that would exempt the lottery from the state’s bid laws, open records laws and open meetings laws. The bill would create a Mississippi Lottery Corp., which would be governed by a five-member board appointed by the governor. The board would hire a president of the corporation, subject to the governor’s veto.

“These folks are going to have more than $200 million in money and you don’t want their records to be public, you don’t want their meetings in public?” asked Sen. David Blount, who offered one of a number of failed amendments to limit proposed powers.

Supporters, though, cited strong public support for a lottery and the need for road money in an era when many Republicans flatly reject increasing fuel taxes.

Transportation Committee Chairman Willie Simmons, a Cleveland Democrat, said the lottery is projected to provide about $40 million to the state in its first year and about $80 million in later years. Money from the lottery would be earmarked for state highways for 10 years.

“The people of this state have waited so long for a lottery,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Philip Moran of Kiln.

Opponents, though, said poorer people would be the disproportionate buyers of lottery tickets, and that money would just be shifted from other purposes.

“I don’t believe it’s the proper role of government to operate a numbers racket and swindle its citizens. That’s about as simple as I can make it,” said Sen. Hob Bryan, an Amory Democrat. “Even if I was for the lottery, I wouldn’t be for this lottery bill, with the corporation and its president having this much power.”

Kenny Digby, director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s lobbying group Christian Action Commission, walked around the Capitol on Thursday with a pair of blue jeans and two loaves of bread hanging from a string around his neck and shoulders. He said if Mississippi creates a lottery, some parents will spend money on lottery tickets.

“They should be buying bread and blue jeans,” Digby said.

Representatives passed House Bill 1 , which House leaders say will provide $110 million annually to cities and counties in 2022 when fully phased in.

Counties and cities would be given the money as long as they don’t decrease the amount they’re currently spending. Counties could spend the money only on roads and bridges, while cities could also spend money on water and sewer work. Each city would be guaranteed at least $10,000 a year.

“This bill makes a major step forward in repairing infrastructure at the local level,” said Rep. Trey Lamar, a Senatobia Republican.

The measure also would authorize the state to borrow up to $300 million mostly to be spent through an emergency bridge repair fund, earmarks proceeds from sports betting to state highways for 10 years, and imposes additional yearly taxes of $75 on hybrid vehicles and $150 on electric vehicles.

Much of the debate in the House focused on $50 million in special projects that had been written into the bill, many in the districts of influential Republicans. Lamar removed those projects, saying he wanted to smooth debate, but made it clear leaders would likely put them back when House and Senate members meet later to resolve differences in the bill.

A bare majority of House members voted instead to split that money evenly between 82 counties, even though House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jeff Smith, a Columbus Republican, said the provision would be stripped later.


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