Little chance lottery would help bottom line

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 7, 2010

There was nothing particularly auspicious about last week’s death of legislation to call for a referendum on creating a Mississippi lottery. The bill filed by state Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, failed last week when a deadline passed and a quorum of House Gaming Committee members failed to show up for a committee meeting.

No doubt some of these lawmakers — the 10 out of 15 members who were no-shows — will be called cowards. The accusation will be that they skipped the deadline-day gathering because they were unwilling even to weigh in on a question that might have offended the state’s existing casino industry. If that’s true, it’s sad. No state is well-served by any lawmaker who hides when there’s a decision to be made.

If there had been a vote on Clarke’s bill, however, it should have been “no.”

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The reason is not to protect the revenue of Mississippi casinos.

The reason is that Mississippi has shown time and again that adding another revenue stream, via a “sin tax” or a tax of any other variety, has no lasting effect.

Remember that since stealth legislation was passed in 1990 to allow casino gambling, patrons have dumped $4.5 billion — $4.5 billion — into the state treasury. Casinos have provided hundreds of millions more in property taxes and payroll taxes from the thousands of people they employ. They’ve collected sales taxes and tourism taxes on their hotel rooms, generating even more cash. And remember the state’s entire General Fund budget was less than $2 billion in 1990.

The money goes in, the money goes out — and there’s always a need for more.

Rep. Clarke wanted the lottery to raise money for college scholarships. She said she was tired of seeing Mississippians going to Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee to play lotteries. That’s OK. Louisiana, and especially Arkansas and Tennessee lawmakers, are probably equally tired of seeing their residents contribute to Mississippi’s budget when they visit casinos here.

But another problem is that Mississippi also has an abysmal record of actually spending money it receives for the purpose initially intended. Witness the soon-to-be-depleted Health Care Trust Fund.

Mississippi was the first state in the union to impose a general sales tax and has gone on to create just about every type of revenue mechanism known to mankind. If adding just one would make a difference, a lottery would be a good idea. Times are tight, but it’s better just to stick with the taxes we have.