Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 14, 2016

Salter: Lottery ticket buyers’ exodus into surrounding states

The joke – author unknown – is now so old as to have become a cliché.
Fellow named Tom, who was in financial difficulty, walked into his Methodist church and prayed.
‘”God,” Tom said. “I know I haven’t been perfect but I really need to win the lottery. I don’t have a lot of money. Please help me out.”
He exited the church, a week went by, and he hadn’t won the lottery, so he walked into a synagogue. ‘”Come on, God,” he said. “I really need this money. My wife needs surgery and I have bills to pay. Please let me win the lottery.”
He left the synagogue, a week went by, and he still didn’t win the lottery. So, he went to a mosque and started to pray again.
“You’re starting to disappoint me, God,” he said. “I’ve prayed and prayed. If you just let me win the lottery, I’ll be a better person. I don’t have to win the jackpot, just enough to get me out of debt. I’ll give some to charity, even. Just let me win the lottery.” Tom thought this sealed the deal, so he got up and walked outside.
Just then, the clouds parted and a booming voice said: “Tom, could you at least buy a lottery ticket?”
State Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, gets the joke – but doesn’t find it particularly funny. Rep. Clarke has for more than a decade introduced legislation to bring the lottery to Mississippi only to see the bill killed in the committee system by the influence of the strange political bedfellows who team up to kill it.
Strange political bedfellows? Yes, the state’s casino gaming interests, their business and political friends, and the state’s religious community. I cast no stones at the faithful and I understand naked self-interest on the part of the casinos and those who partner with them.
It’s like watching a local option liquor election beaten by a coalition of bootleggers and preachers.
Every state in the union sanctions the lotteries except Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah, and Mississippi. People in those six states have to drive across state lines to buy lottery tickets. And in Mississippi, with a $1.4 million Powerball available, people are doing so in droves.
Forget that the odds of winning are 1-in-292 million and that ticket buyers are 250 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the Powerball. There’s a sucker born every minute and people have dreams, right?
Rep. Clarke knows those odds and those facts. She’s a solid Christian woman with the highest moral and ethical values. But she sees the lines of cars taking Mississippi lottery players to Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida to buy lottery tickets and she wonders – each year for a decade now – why a portion of those funds can’t stay in Mississippi to fund highways or education or public health or a host of other needs.
Each year when Clarke files her lottery legislation, legislative colleagues kill this bill and they do so in the name of either protecting the existing casino industry or protecting us from ourselves in terms of religious and moral concerns.
But in Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, taxpayers aren’t protecting their existing gambling interests. They are, however, selling Mississippians as many lottery tickets as we will buy and reaping the tax revenue from it to address problems in their states.
One piece of information missing from the debate is that Mississippi, in comparison with other states that have commercial casinos, has the third-lowest state gaming tax rate in the country behind only Nevada and New Jersey. Mississippi levies a 12 percent tax rate on gross casino gaming revenues, of which 8 percent goes to the state and 4 percent to local governments. Louisiana levies 21.5 percent, plus another 4 percent local tax.
If the current exodus from Mississippi to surrounding states to play the Powerball doesn’t bolster Rep. Clarke’s lonely quest, it’s likely that nothing ever will. Strange political bedfellows? Indeed.
(Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com)

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