Miss. Senate votes to further limit casino locations

Published 8:28 pm Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mississippi senators voted 36-14 Monday to strip six Mississippi River counties and one coastal county of the right to allow casino developments.

The bill affects areas where casinos have not yet located after nearly 17 years of theoretical possibility.

The bill’s sponsors said the seven counties that already have casinos — including the bustling markets of Tunica County and Biloxi/Gulfport — would not be affected.

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“This might be the only time as senators that you get to vote on a bill that all the churches want and all the casinos want,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, told his colleagues as he sought their support.

Some religious groups, including Baptists, have pushed to limit the expansion of casinos. Companies that already operate casinos could see a financial benefit if other possible gaming sites are limited.

In 1991, Mississippi legalized state-regulated dockside casinos in counties along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The state law gives residents in each county the option of voting to allow casinos to operate.

This is the first major attempt to remove possible casino sites, and it’s unclear whether there are enough House votes to push the bill to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s desk.

The bill was held for the possibility of more Senate debate, but it appears unlikely that opponents will have enough momentum to reverse the vote and block the bill from going to the House.

Barbour spokesman Pete Smith said the governor’s staff has not studied the bill, but “the governor has consistently said he is against the expansion of gaming into counties that don’t already have it.”

The chief sponsor of the bill is freshman Sen. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon. He is a former consultant for the Christian Action Commission, the lobbying group for the Mississippi Baptist Convention.

Five of the 11 river counties and two of the three coastal counties have casinos now. The river counties are Tunica, Coahoma, Washington, Warren and Adams. The coastal counties are Hancock and Harrison, and after Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the floating casinos in 2005, the Legislature voted to let the coastal casinos build a short distance on shore.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians operates two casinos in central Mississippi’s Neshoba County, but those are not regulated by the state.

The bill that cleared the Senate would prohibit casinos from opening in DeSoto, Bolivar, Issaquena, Claiborne, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties along the river and Jackson County on the coast.

Fast-growing DeSoto County is sandwiched between Memphis, Tenn., and one of the busiest casino areas in Mississippi in Tunica County. Coastal Jackson County borders Alabama.

The other counties that could have casinos but do not are mostly rural and have large black populations. Some senators said taking away the counties’ right to have casinos limits the possibilities for economic development.

“Just because someone has not exercised a right that they have doesn’t mean that we should take it away from them,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson.

Sen. Vincent Davis, D-Fayette, said Claiborne County — which is in his district — voted about a dozen years ago to allow casinos. He said land was purchased but the development never took place. He said the state should not take away the county’s option to reopen talks about a casino.

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, is a graduate of Delta State University, which is in Bolivar County. He said with the development of the north-south Interstate 69 through Bolivar County, the area might become a prime location for a casino in the next few years, and that could create jobs in a part of the state that badly needs them.

The bill is Senate Bill 2199.