- The Washington Times - Friday, September 30, 2005

BILOXI, Miss. — No one argues about whether gambling has been lucrative here, be it for big casino operators, the locals they employ or the state government.

But a battle over how to rebuild Gulf Coast casinos ravaged by Hurricane Katrina has become a contentious topic at an emergency session the state Legislature called this week to deal with the storm’s aftermath.

“We’ve been listening to the religious groups, the business groups and the individuals, and we’re in the process of hopefully molding a political solution to get around the different stands that these different groups have taken,” said Rep. Bobby Moak, chairman of Mississippi’s House Gaming Committee.

The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board is calling for a statewide referendum on gambling law changes, especially any effort to move casinos inland. Under Mississippi law, all casinos in the state must float offshore.

“We believe the state is addicted to this money, which has caused us to turn away from important issues such as the morality of gambling, the effect it has had on families and business partners and small business,” said William H. Perkins Jr., editor of the Baptist Record, the weekly journal of the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board.

He added that the Baptist Convention Board represents 2,110 churches with about 718,000 members, nearly a quarter of Mississippi’s population.

Meanwhile, casino companies reportedly are working behind the scenes for legislation that would allow them to build on land, saying it would ease their access to insurance packages and substantial investment bonds to rebuild.

National gambling industry lobbyists say they are careful to stay out of the local political fight. “We have no position on what’s going on down there,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based American Gaming Association.

However, Mr. Fahrenkopf, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, called the gambling industry the “economic engine of the Biloxi and Gulfport area.” He noted that the industry is a major employer and source of tax revenue in the region and that the thousands of casino employees pay taxes and earn money to support the local economy.

The state has lost about $500,000 a day in tax revenue since Katrina shut down casinos more than a month ago, and about 14,000 casino employees are out of work.

The state legalized gambling in 1990 after a pitched battle between gambling proponents and religious and family-values groups. Legislators ultimately agreed to limit the industry’s footprint in the state by mandating that non-tribal casinos float, either on the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico, and be approved by local referendum in counties where they would be built.

In the past 15 years, 12 casinos have emerged along the Gulf Coast.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican who campaigned against inland expansion, changed his position this week. He now supports allowing casinos within 1,500 feet of the water’s edge.

If the state wants “world-class resorts” and to “build the coast bigger and better than ever before, I believe we will fail if we don’t allow the casinos to come on shore,” Mr. Barbour said Tuesday as state lawmakers convened for the emergency session.

Biloxi Mayor A.J. Holloway traveled to Jackson this week to lobby against allowing casinos beyond 800 feet of the shore, a compromise that he said would help prevent encroachment on historic residential neighborhoods.

“I think we need to find a way to stimulate the industry to get back in business as soon as possible,” he said, adding that about 35 percent of the city’s total revenue comes from taxing the gambling industry.

For Gulfport Mayor Brent Warr, 800 feet is too far. He said rebuilding by the casinos should be limited to land adjacent to their current interests.

“The further you try to move gaming inland, especially to communities where gaming is not allowed right now, that just creates political opposition,” Mr. Moak said.

Donald E. Wildmon, a retired Methodist minister who now heads the American Family Association of Tupelo, in northern Mississippi, said his organization is “absolutely, totally, completely opposed” to allowing casinos to move onto land.

“They’re using a tragic situation to advance themselves,” he said. “Gamblers move inch by inch by inch. You give them an inch and they’ll move a mile.”

Mr. Wildmon dismissed lawmakers’ fear that casino companies might leave the state. “Those companies are going to rebuild; that’s not a question,” he said.

“They tell you they’re going to leave but they’re not going to leave. They’re not going to walk away from $5 million a day,” he said.

MGM Mirage, Harrah’s and others have said they will rebuild. Hundreds of construction workers were on the scene yesterday repairing MGM’s damaged Beau Rivage resort in Biloxi.

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