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Mississippi considers changes in casino laws

The debate over giving tax incentives to casino companies eventually became an argument over whether Mississippi should reward an industry that profits from what many consider a vice.

On a 36-16 vote, the Senate passed a bill that would include casino companies in a tourism incentive program.

Sen. Gary Jackson, a Republican from inland Kilmichael, said the gaming industry doesn’t need additional incentives to conduct business in the state.

“All this will do is to pay them to do something to make more money,” said Jackson, a Baptist pastor. He said the casinos make millions of dollars from patrons who lose money gambling.

Lawmakers in 2000 enacted the tax incentive program to boost tourism. It allows companies to recoup up to 30 percent of their costs for attractions through sales tax generated by the project. Casinos weren’t included in the 2000 legislation, but lawmakers are now trying to add them.

Under the bill, a company can receive the incentive if it makes at least a $10 million investment for projects such as theme parks and museums. A more substantial investment would be required for other projects, including hotels.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission already has rules requiring new casinos to invest in land-based projects of equal value as their gambling houses. There’s currently no tax break for casinos in state law.

Supporters say the legislation will encourage the development of tourist attractions in Mississippi.

Sen. David Baria, a Democrat from coastal Bay St. Louis, told Jackson that people go to the casinos to eat at restaurants and to shop at stores. Baria said he recently spent all day at a casino and didn’t gamble at all.

Baria suggested that adding casinos to the tourism program was no different than the millions of dollars in incentives that the state has approved for the Nissan and Toyota manufacturing plants.

“Don’t you tell me for a minute, this is just like any other business,” Jackson responded, adding that some people spend their entire paychecks at casinos.

Also on Wednesday, the House approved a bill to prohibit casinos from opening in DeSoto, Bolivar, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties along the Mississippi River and Jackson County on the coast. All the counties have had the theoretical possibility of gaming since the early 1990s but no casinos have developed there. Mississippi law limits state-regulated casinos to areas along the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. The bill passed with no debate.

Both bills likely are headed to final House-Senate negotiations.

Rep. Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, who sponsored the casino incentive tax bill said one of the issues to be resolved is the retail portion of the bill. She said the Senate stripped out that language.

“It’s retail in conjunction with destination spa developments. It’s not strip malls,” Peranich said.

Mississippi has 29 state-regulated casinos. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians also operates two casinos, but they are not regulated by the state and would not be affected by the legislation being considered.

Supporters said the incentive program would help all areas of the state because a company can choose to build a tourist attraction anywhere.

Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, said the presence of casinos is one of the main factors contributing to the Gulf Coast’s recovery after Hurricane Katrina. The storm struck in 2005. Since then, 11 casinos have reopened out of the 13 that were there before the storm.

“They’re a legitimate business, just like every other business in Mississippi,” Gollott said.

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The bills are House Bill 1196 and Senate Bill 2199.