Barbour headed toward casino moratorium

Published 4:30 pm Monday, May 19, 2008

The late Gov. Kirk Fordice used to say he opposed casinos but became a convert when tourists’ money started flowing and he saw that two-thirds of the license plates at Mississippi’s casinos were from out of state.

Republican Fordice defeated Democratic Gov. Ray Mabus in November 1991, only months after Mabus had signed the dockside gaming act into law.

Fordice groused that he had “inherited” the task of regulating gaming. The first casino opened in August 1992, just a few months into the first of his two terms.

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He said strict regulation kept the industry stable through an initial “shaking out period,” but he believed regulation should not be too broad.

The Mississippi Gaming Commission’s regulatory philosophy was molded after Fordice’s own. Free enterprise. Free market. The strong will survive.

For 17 years, the Gaming Commission has let competition decide who can succeed or fail in the highly competitive casino business.

Fordice and the two men who have followed him — Democrat Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Haley Barbour — have said Mississippi has enough casinos.

Barbour, who took office in 2004, has consistently said he’s against the expansion of gaming into counties that don’t already have it.

Now, Barbour has asked legislators in a special session on Wednedsday to rewrite state law to restrict casinos to counties where they already exist.

In a speech this month at the Southern Gaming Summit in Biloxi, Barbour said a moratorium on casino expansion is the way to go.

“To consider closing the window and saying we will not expand gaming beyond the counties where it is now — I think that’s the right policy,” Barbour said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dean Kirby, R-Pearl, said senators tried to do that with a casino bill that ultimately failed during the regular 2008 session.

“I felt like it was a really good bill and would limit casinos only to those counties that have it now,” Kirby said.

Kirby said it meant counties along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast that didn’t have casinos now would never have them.

“In checking with the Gaming Commission, we found a majority of the counties that don’t have gaming had shown no interest whatsoever in it,” he said.

It was the first major attempt by the Legislature to remove possible future casino sites.

A compromise worked out between the House and Senate would have given Bolivar, Jackson, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties three years to apply for a gaming license or hold a casino referendum.

It would have banned gaming in DeSoto County, bordering Tennessee, where residents have said they don’t want casinos. The bill would not have affected counties that already have casinos in operation or those whose residents have voted in favor of gaming.

Kirby said while he thought the compromise was good, it didn’t have majority support in either house.

Five of the 11 river counties and two of the three coastal counties have casinos now. The river counties are Tunica, Coahoma, Washington, Warren and Adams. The coastal counties are Hancock and Harrison. After Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the floating casinos in 2005, the Legislature voted to let the coastal casinos build a short distance on shore.

The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians operates two casinos in central Mississippi’s Neshoba County, but those are not regulated by the state.

Barbour’s proposal — and the original bill approved by the Senate — would prohibit casinos from opening in DeSoto, Bolivar, Issaquena, Claiborne, Jefferson and Wilkinson counties along the river and Jackson County on the coast.