Gamings here to stay, but it can still shoulder more taxes - Friday 14th of October 2005

The little dust-up over gaming at the Mississippi Legislature during the past couple of weeks brought two gigantic opposing political forces into play — the religious lobby and the casino lobby.

Lawmakers quickly found a simple bill to move casinos a few hundred feet off of the water onto the Coast was not so simple. Those who oppose gambling on moral grounds — anywhere, any type, anytime, period — used the issue to bring up arguments on the merits of gaming itself, a debate that should have ended 15 years ago after legalization. It apparently hasnt.

Opponents of gambling might make a lot of lawmakers uncomfortable in the pews on Sunday, but gaming is here to stay. Opponents efforts to, as they see it, stop its spread actually would find its biggest supporters among the existing casinos, which are quite comfortable without statewide competition.

Making sucker bet

That is why opponents of legalized gaming are losing. They are making a sucker bet in the wrong game.

If they want to have some impact, they ought to be putting their political efforts into increasing taxes on the gaming industry, a proposal that does have merit and is politically feasible.

Mississippi remains a state with one of the lowest gaming tax rates in the nation, about 12 percent overall in state and local assessments. The state tax is 8 percent. Mississippi is about the fourth lowest in the country with Nevada being the lowest at 6.75 and Illinois the highest with up to 70 percent on some gaming.

Mississippi intentionally set its gaming tax as one of the lowest in the nation. It was a good plan. The low rate attracted development and quality development, especially on the Gulf Coast and Tunica County. It was good business and good politics. Mississippi has a strong gaming market with much potential.

Since gaming began in 1992, casinos have paid $3.3 billion in total taxes. While taxpayers generally think the state rakes it in from casinos, the General Fund figure is less than $200 million annually.

There is reasonable room for growth in this tax rate. Mississippi still could remain competitive, but collect more tax revenue from this lucrative business.

Collecting revenue

But back to the gigantic political forces. The gaming lobby is strong and has staunchly and successfully opposed any increases, even in Mississippis worst budget times.

Efforts for a state lottery, which in the past have had majority support in polls, dont get anywhere in the face of casino opposition.

But, the recent debate shows the religious lobby against gaming can get legislators attention.

Gambling opponents arent going to stop gamblers, but they could make them pay more taxes.

Calling for an increase in gaming taxes might not make a good fire-and-brimstone sermon, but it might help the state collection plate.

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