Despite opposition from some religious conservatives, it looks like land-based casinos will be coming to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said Monday he would sign a bill this week that could keep coastal casinos on solid land the next time a hurricane hits.
The Senate voted 29-21 Monday for a bill that passed the House 60-53 last week. The bill will let coast casinos move 800 feet on shore — about the length of three football fields.
In Harrison County, casinos could go either 800 feet or to the southern boundary of Highway 90 — whichever is a greater distance. The east-west highway hugs the beach through Biloxi and Gulfport.
The decision to allow onshore gambling came a month after Hurricane Katrina smashed many of Mississippi’s floating casinos. The storm prompted Barbour to say casinos would be safer up on shore.
The state legalized casinos in 1990, but said they must float on either the Gulf of Mexico or the Mississippi River. The new bill does not allow the river casinos to move onto dry land.
Some religious groups, including the Mississippi Baptist Convention, oppose letting casinos onshore. The Baptists have about a quarter of the state’s population on their membership rolls.
Baptist Convention spokesman William Perkins said people can’t serve two masters — God and money. Perkins said the governor and some legislators are choosing to serve money.
Others said the move would hurt families and children.
“It greives my heart to think that the state of Mississippi wants to allow expansion of gambling further because it’s going to destroy more families; it’s going to hurt more children,” said Pastor David P. Smith.
“God’s destroyed it, you might as well look at it that way,” said protester Paul Jabur. “He brought in a storm. He washed those boats away for a reason. Now, I’m not saying that was his judgement, but it happened. Now, why build it back?”
Barbour said the onshore bill is consistent with a campaign promise he made two years ago to oppose any expansion of gambling into cities or counties where it has been illegal.
While Mississippi’s coastal casinos are losing $3.3 million in gaming revenue each day, gamblers aren’t sitting on their money.
Much of it is going to casinos in Vicksburg — between New Orleans and Memphis along Mississippi’s western border — and the state’s other casinos in Greenville, Natchez and Tunica and Philadelphia.
But the governor and other lawmakers said coastal casinos do have a reason. They bring in tourists, jobs and money.
“We’re losing $500,000 a day. Some 14,000 employees are displaced. So, this is a message of hope saying that we can come back, we can rebuild lives over again,” said Rep. George Flaggs (D) Warren County.
But money won’t change the minds of those who believe gambling is wrong.
“I don’t want it there,” Jabur said. “I don’t want us to depend on gambling as a country. America doesn’t need gambling to survive. Neither does Jackson or in Harrison County.”
In response to Jabur, let me say that, as a resident of both cities, Las Vegas and Atlantic City might not need gambling to survive, they do need it to provide jobs and economic activity. Sure, we’d be alive without it, just unemployed.
I think that Rep. Flaggs said it best–religious principles aren’t bringing the state $500,000 a day, and they’re not creating 14,000 jobs. I imagine that’s what it comes down to.