STARKVILLE — As a longtime state lottery supporter, I quietly celebrated the official beginning Monday of Mississippi’s entry into this form of raising state revenue as a small victory over the notion of Mississippi continuing to shoot itself in the foot through senseless and unjustifiable lottery opposition. I bought one on the way home from work — and lost.
Those who oppose or opposed the lottery on religious grounds certainly have my respect for their beliefs. But as Mississippians of a certain generation have long witnessed in local-option liquor elections, one of Mississippi’s oldest and most reliable political alliances existed between people of faith and people of avarice — the preachers and the bootleggers.
Perhaps alliance is too strong a term, but it’s undeniable that both groups had the same end game: The preachers wanted their flocks protected from demon rum, and the bootleggers wanted to keep their corner of the illegal booze market cornered.
Total tax revenues collected from smoking, drinking and gambling have exceeded a half-billion dollars annually for several years, including the additional general sales taxes the activities generate, according to the state Department of Revenue’s data.
Gaming in the 2018 fiscal year generated $249.1 million in taxes in the form of $119.2 million to county and municipal governments and the state’s portion of $128.9 million. Overall, gaming provided 2 percent of general fund revenues. Tobacco taxes generated $158 million, or 3 percent of the general fund. Alcoholic beverage taxes generated $89.9 million, but $11.5 million went to county and municipal governments, leaving $78.4 million, or 1 percent of general fund revenues, for the state.
Mississippi voters believe — with varying degrees of factual and historical support for those beliefs — that they have been promised in the past that legalizing and taxing alcohol sales, gaming and other “sins” would provide support for public education and other noble pursuits. They also believe that those “promises” have proven to be either false or grossly overstated.
The other lessons from the ghosts of sin taxes past are that sin-tax efforts produce strange political bedfellows. As noted earlier, want to change a local option liquor law? Then prepare to fight both the local churches and the local bootleggers.
Want to change Mississippi gaming laws? Then prepare to fight both the religious community and the entrenched casino gaming industry. Since the inception of legal casino gaming in Mississippi in the 1990s, efforts to enact a state lottery or other major changes, such as the sportsbook, met with opposition from the churches and from the big casino companies.
But in terms of the sportsbook, changes in federal law made it advantageous for the casinos to relax their opposition. And the lottery? Inevitability kicked it. It became impossible for legislators to hold a straight face in opposing the lottery while Mississippians watched their neighbors driving across state lines to play the lottery in most of Mississippi’s contiguous states.
Polling showed that Mississippians had favored a state lottery back to the mid-1980s. But the issue wasn’t politically ripe until Republican-led tax cuts on more traditional taxes left little money available for infrastructure and education. Then, as one newspaper headlined, “Hades froze over” in Mississippi and the lottery passed the Legislature in 2018.
Sources close to the Monday lottery rollout say the debut in Mississippi was impressive, with lottery ticket sellers moving more than one million tickets in the first hour and returning well over a half-million to the state’s tax coffers in less than 12 hours of sales.
The lottery won’t fix Mississippi’s governmental finance challenges. But it will keep a sizable chunk of Mississippi money that had been flowing over the bridges to neighboring states here at home — something my friend, state Rep. Alyce Clarke of Jackson, had been telling her legislative colleagues for 20 years.
• Sid Salter is director of the Office of University Relations at Mississippi State University. Contact him at email@example.com.