Barbour's Session Agenda Draft: Allow Casinos Not On Barges - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

09/23/05

Barbour's Session Agenda Draft: Allow Casinos Not On Barges

Gov. Haley Barbour's draft agenda for next week's special legislative session includes a proposal to let casinos "operate in structures other than barges,'' according to a document obtained by The Associated Press.

The draft also proposes letting casinos operate temporarily, but it doesn't specify where that could happen.

The 23-point draft includes a wide variety of proposals to help the state recover from Hurricane Katrina, from allowing state agencies more flexibility in handling budgets to creating a loan program for small businesses.

Katrina ravaged the coastal counties on Aug. 29, leaving widespread damage to homes and businesses more than 100 miles inland. Casinos and other industries on the coast sustained extensive damage.

Barbour is calling lawmakers to the Capitol starting sometime Tuesday to begin addressing some of the problems. The governor sets the agenda in any special session, and Barbour has not yet released a final list of issues he'll let lawmakers consider.

The document obtained by AP is a draft the governor's office gave to legislative leaders.

Mississippi legalized casinos in 1990 but limited them to the waters of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

Katrina's powerful winds and storm ripped holes in most of the 13 coast casinos and shoved some of them ashore. Some casino companies say they want to build on land; others say they'll rebuild over water.

Barbour said this week that he will let lawmakers debate whether to let casinos build on land. But he has not yet issued a formal agenda, leaving open the possibility that he could back away from the politically volatile casino issue.

The governor said he will release a detailed casino proposal after he receives a recommendation from the three-member state Gaming Commission. Commission chairman Jerry St. Pe will speak to Barbour sometime this weekend, the commission's executive director, Larry Gregory, said Friday.

"We'll be giving him counsel and advice of all of the information we have, to make good sound judgments,'' Gregory said. "As far as giving an exact location (of where casinos could locate), we're not going to be doing that. The Legislature will be addressing those issues.''

In Harrison County, the coast's largest casino market, supervisors have passed a resolution asking lawmakers to let gambling houses go 1,500 feet inland from their current locations.

Barbour's draft agenda for the special session says the rationale for letting casinos operate temporarily and operate in structures other than barges is: "To restore the operations of a major South Mississippi employer as soon as possible and to give confidence for future investments.''

A state law passed earlier this year allows casinos to build on pilings over water. It's unclear whether Barbour's draft proposal would give the casinos any more leeway than they already have under the pilings law.

On Friday, the chairman of the Tupelo-based American Family Association said he opposes allowing casinos on land. The Rev. Donald Wildmon said this might be a good time to have a statewide vote on gambling.

That raises the possibility of outlawing an industry that employs thousands of people and pumps millions of dollars into Mississippi's economy.

"Perhaps, this is a political debate regarding gambling in Mississippi which has been needed for years,'' Wildmon said in a news release. "Up to this point, we have not had that debate.''

The AFA statement came a day after the state's largest religious group - the Mississippi Baptist Convention - said hurricane damage shouldn't be used as a reason to expand the gambling industry.

Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck says she's waiting to see the session agenda before she comments on the casino issue.

Speaker Billy McCoy said he's relying on the House Gaming Committee chairman - Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto - to stake out a position. McCoy, who spent several days traveling through hurricane-ravaged parts of south Mississippi, said: "In my travels around, gaming is not what the citizens are talking to me about.''

He said people are more concerned about the immediate needs of dealing with insurance companies and rebuilding their own homes.

Barbour was elected in 2003 with the help of business and religious interests - two groups that could now have starkly different views of whether casinos should go on land.

Moak said it's a "political fiction'' that casinos can only build over water because the state law since 1990 has set the construction boundaries at the high tide mark. Most of the time, Moak said, people could reach down near the base of a coast casino and "pick up a handful of dirt.''

"When they talk about 'Let's don't have gaming on dry land,' we've already got it,'' Moak said. "Surprise, surprise.''

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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