The Politics of Gambling 

In Mississippi, gambling, like football, is a game of inches.

To fundamentalist Christians who believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs, Hurricane Katrina was not just a natural disaster.

The storm and ensuing flood of biblical proportions took aim at New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In addition to causing more than 1,000 deaths, massive destruction, and terrible suffering, Katrina also heavily damaged or washed away all 12 casinos on the Mississippi coast.

A sign, perhaps? Enough of one, anyway, to make some members of the Mississippi Legislature uneasy if not openly defiant about Governor Haley Barbour's call to rebuild the Gulf Coast bigger and better than ever, with casinos built on dry land instead of floating on the Mississippi Sound or the back bay. Barbour, elected in 2003, is a conservative Republican and seventh-generation Mississippian opposed to expansion of gambling. He thinks casinos must be a part of rebuilding Mississippi because of the jobs, taxes, and tourism they provide. His speech opening the special session moved some legislators to tears, but it could not bring about the quick action he hoped for on casinos. Four days later, the House and Senate were in a Mexican standoff, and no bill had made it to the floor of either chamber.

"I'd like to see them gone," said Senator Gary Jackson, a Baptist minister from Kilmichael in central Mississippi. "It wouldn't bug me if they didn't rebuild at all. Last year when they asked to be allowed to put their casinos on pilings, that was supposed to be all they needed. That was not all they needed."

Like many of his colleagues, Jackson keeps a laptop computer at his desk in the Senate and uses it to keep in touch with his constituents and other ministers. He also has a radio program in which he denounces gambling. A loose anti-gambling coalition that cuts across party, racial, geographic, and House-Senate lines opposes any bill that gives casinos added advantages, even one as seemingly minor as an additional 800 feet of coastal real estate in Harrison and Hancock counties on the Gulf Coast. The bill passed Monday.

There were reasons for caution.

Casinos are experts at turning small advantages into massive profits. The house advantage on the pass or don't-pass line at craps is less than 2 percent. Some slot machines pay back 95 percent or more of the money poured into them, but slots still account for 80 percent of casino profits.

Beyond that, the history of Mississippi casinos since they were legalized in 1990 is marked by huge miscalculations. The original bill passed because 10 of 52 senators "took a walk" -- didn't vote. Backers thought there would be three coastal casinos and three Mississippi River casinos with 3,000 employees and $18 million in tax revenue. Instead there are 30 casinos with 35,000 employees and $180 million to the state and counties where casinos are located. Schools, banks, and entire communities are dependent on them.

If football is a game of inches, Mississippi casino gambling is a game of feet. The proposal to move coastal casinos 800 feet or 1,500 feet is reminiscent of a 1993 administrative change in gaming regulations that allowed casinos in Tunica to build canals to man-made lagoons 3,000 feet from the river. That lessened the danger of flooding and interference with navigation and -- not incidentally -- moved the epicenter of Tunica County gambling 30 minutes closer to Memphis and unleashed $500 million in new investment.

The difference between 800 feet and 1,500 feet on the coast is significant. The longer distance would potentially allow two casinos to locate next to Interstate 10. The shorter one would put most of them north of beachfront U.S. Highway 90. One of the things causing inaction on a bill was the lack of agreement among coastal mayors and casino operators. Harrah's Entertainment favored 1,500 feet so they could put the casino inside the hotel. Bernie Burkholder, CEO of Treasure Bay, whose pirate ship was tossed onto Highway 90, said 800 feet would be enough, but if the legislature did nothing, his company would not rebuild.

Jackson doesn't think the do-nothing option would doom the casino industry on the Gulf Coast; it would more likely only cause a shake-out. Beau Rivage, he noted, was already rebuilding its $750 million Biloxi facility. He and other casino opponents were offering the other side this bargain: Leave things as they are, or make an all-in bet and allow lawmakers to cast an up or down vote on gambling.

Bring it on, replied some gambling proponents.

"I'm ready to piss on the fire and call in the dogs," said Representative Steve Holland of Plantersville, as the stalemate dragged into the third day.

Holland is a Democrat, Mason, Shriner, Methodist, farmer, and funeral-home owner with a wit that would be at home with Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy.

"I voted to put casinos on the Tenn-Tom Waterway in 1991, and I haven't had an opponent since," he snorted. "This isn't about philosophy or morality. It's about having a big set of cods."

Representative John Mayo, a Democrat from Clarksdale whose district includes the Tunica casinos, was afraid there were "too many members who don't want to vote at all" and that the governor's proposal would die. The 1,500-foot proposal, he said, would give some casinos an unfair market advantage, but he supported the 800-foot proposal.

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