Opinion: Lawmakers miss local options for sports betting

Steve Rogers
By: 
STEVE ROGERS
Staff Writer

The Mississippi Legislature often is criticized for doing nothing. In fact, during a forum last week, five area lawmakers criticized themselves, or at least the body as a whole, for the lack of action in the session completed in early April.

So it's puzzling that while legislators can't agree on funding for education or roads or enacting a popular lottery, they can quickly come to an agreement on something like sports betting.

That's right, when big out-of-state-money -- i.e. the folks who own casinos -- asked legislators last year to approve sports betting, our lawmakers jumped.

The casino folks knew a case was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court that given a ruling in favor of gambling interests, could open the door almost immediately to states that were prepared.

Because Mississippi already had casinos, some simple acts by the Legislature could pave the way for sports betting here when the Supreme Court ruling came down.

The Legislature acted last year and the anticipated Supreme Court ruling happened earlier this month. Now, the state is primed to be the only place in the South to legally engage in sports betting, at least in the short run.

Given Mississippi is in the heart of SEC sports country, the gambling interests are giddy at the possibilities.

I find it almost comical that the same Bible-thumping folks who are split on a lottery, foam at the mouth with Biblical platitudes against gay rights and other things they see as sinister, can act so quickly on sports betting.

At the same forum last week where local Democrat and Republican lawmakers took jabs at each other and their leadership for ineffectiveness, Columbus City Councilman Bill Gavin asked the group about what impact sports betting might have on the state.

The lawmakers looked perplexed as if they'd never thought about it.

Gavin's real question was whether casinos might be able to open a sports-betting parlor on the banks of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. For years, the idea of a casino on "The Island" has been tossed around in the Golden Triangle. But stipulations in the state's current casino law block the idea.

Gavin was asking outloud whether sports betting might be a loophole. His idea is a sports bar that also doubles as a sports betting parlor. He sees it as a huge potential economic development tool for the region and the state, generating gaming taxes and local sales and tourism taxes. It also could help jump start other development on "The Island" just across from downtown Columbus.

Unfortunately, in their haste to satisfy gambling interests last year, lawmakers apparently didn't step back and look at other ways the law might benefit the state. Instead, they simply approved something that could further line the casinos' pockets.

Unfortunately, that kind of shortsightedness has become the norm from our legislative leaders.

State Rep. Jeff Smith, the Columbus Republican who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said he wasn't sure whether a casino could open an "annex" sports betting parlor. He surmised it probably couldn't.

But he did acknowledge an Indian tribe could possibly buy land and overcome current roadblocks.

Lawmakers still could go back and open the door to the possibility. But that would take time and by then, some of the opportunity would be lost.

Furthermore, I don't see lawmakers being that interested in helping local communities. Traditionally, they've been more inclined to shut off revenue and development options for local governments than expand them.

So if Mr. Gavin and others want to try to take advantage of the sports betting, they'd be better off to call the companies that own the casinos and get them to seek the change.

It's obvious power brokers in the Legislature will listen to them even if they won't help local communities.

STEVE ROGERS IS THE NEWS REPORTER FOR THE DAILY TIMES LEADER. THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS COLUMN ARE HIS AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS OF THE NEWSPAPER OR ITS STAFF.

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