Potential special session on roads that includes lottery not without pitfalls

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If Gov. Phil Bryant does call a special session to try to deal with the state’s growing infrastructure woes, it is likely that he will recommend the lottery as part of the solution.

In past statements, the Republican governor has proposed using revenue from a lottery as a source of revenue for transportation needs.

There has been speculation that he would call a special session this month.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Governor Phil Bryant gives a speech during the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, August 2, 2018.

Last week at the political speakings at the Neshoba County Fair, Bryant said, “If we call a special session, if I do, if we get an agreement, we’re going to get out and fix roads and bridges. I have a plan to do that without raising your taxes. I know some people don’t like that. They want your taxes to go up. That is not why I got elected.”

While Bryant and others might argue that a lottery is not a tax, others would disagree, including groups that traditionally have been supportive of the Republican governor, who is known for his conservative social leanings on most issues.

William Perkins, editor of the Mississippi Baptist Record, said, “You can be assured we are going to fight the lottery to the end. The lottery will be no more useful to the people of the state than casino gambling, sports betting or liquor.”

While sports betting is just getting started in Mississippi and is expected to generate less than $5 million per year in revenue for the state, casino gambling and liquor bring in more than $200 million annually in combined revenue.

But Perkins and others would argue the social costs of liquor and gambling to the state and its people – costs that include addictions that tear families apart, leading to need for the state to provide more counseling and other services –  are more than the revenue collected.

In addition, Perkins contended that when legislators approved both liquor and casinos they argued their revenue would solve the state’s problems with education.

“We are still on the bottom,” he said. “The lottery will be no different.”

Perkins said the names of the legislators who vote to enact a lottery will be printed by the Mississippi Baptist Convention to let their constituents know.

The Legislature and the governor have been grappling with how to deal with what most agree is a deteriorating infrastructure system on both the state and local levels. Federal officials have forced the closure of hundreds of county bridges deemed as unsafe and officials have estimated an additional $400 million per year is needed to address state transportation woes.

But there has been no will among the political leadership to increase the motor fuel tax, which is the primary source of state funding for infrastructure.

But, the momentum to enact a lottery has been growing in Mississippi. On multiple occasions in recent years, the state House has voted to amend legislation to enact a lottery. Those proposals, though, died later in the process.

Mississippi is one of only six states nationwide that does not have a lottery.

State Sen. Philip Moran, R-Kiln, said about 40 of the state’s 52 senators signed a petition during the 2018 session in favor of the lottery. Moran said the governor has told him that if he calls a special session the enactment of the lottery will be part of the agenda. He said he has heard speculation that the special session would be called in about two weeks.

Moran said a recent poll indicated support for the lottery is at more than 70 percent in Mississippi.

“That is a pretty overwhelming number,” he said. “You can’t just ignore that.”

If the legislative leadership allows a vote on the lottery, Moran said it would pass.

Moran said, as the governor has in the past, that the state is losing millions of dollars each year by Mississippians traveling to the surrounding states of Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana to purchase lottery tickets.

A study conducted last year by the state’s University Research Center for a House lottery study group estimated that Mississippians could be spending as much as $70 million annually on lottery tickets purchased in neighboring states.

Still, the study found, that “the leakage” of money leaving the state could be more if Mississippi enacted a lottery. State Economist Darrin Webb explained that “the leakage” could come from paying out of state companies for lottery equipment and from people from outside of the state buying lottery tickets in the state, winning and taking those earnings out of the state.

Plus, there is the argument that the lottery does not generate new revenue, but instead diverts disposable income, or even worse, non disposable income, to the purchase of lottery tickets instead of the purchase of other items.

For instance, a 2015 report in the Atlantic magazine said, based on numbers compiled by CNN Money and other groups, $70 billion annually in lottery tickets are purchased, more than is spent on books, tickets for movies, video games and sporting events combined.

Still, the University Research Center estimated that a lottery would generate between $83 million and $92 million eventually for the state. The reasoning is that the sale of a lottery ticket would generate more revenue for the state – an estimated 30 percent on each sale – than would sale of most other items that are taxed at 7 percent.

But in a November hearing Webb had a warning to members of the study committee that a lottery “represents a means of raising revenue without raising taxes and therefore is attractive to many. However, a disproportionate share of this revenue will come from lower income groups. Mississippi is already plagued by people making poor choices, including decisions regarding their health, family planning, and education/training. A Mississippi lottery means the state will be investing in and encouraging individuals who have limited incomes to make poor financial decisions.”