Tax Changes On The Way

The tax man is changing his demands on jackpot winners in Mississippi casinos. A new law taking effect New Year's Day requires that 3 percent be withheld for state taxes anytime someone wins $1,200 or more at one of the state-regulated gambling halls.

That's a smaller bite than the 5 percent the government had been taking from slot machine winnings _ but there's a catch. Until now, folks had been able to apply for refunds when they pay their state income taxes. The new law eliminates the possibility of refunds. State Tax Commission chairman Ed Buelow said about 100,000 people from out of state had been filing taxes on casino winnings, and most were seeking refunds by claiming 100 percent gambling losses. Buelow said Mississippi should neither gain nor lose money in the deal. ``We are assuming what the state got out of those withholdings was 3 percent,'' he said. The state is losing the headache of trying to audit out-of-state gamblers at a time the Tax Commission is short-staffed because of a tight state budget. Rep. Jim Simpson, R-Gulfport, said the old law was tough to enforce. ``It was difficult to make sure that the refunds were truly warranted,'' Simpson said. ``The idea was that you lost more than you won and so you were entitled to a refund. It was very difficult to make sure that was true unless you audit people.''

The Tax Commission pushed for the change. It's one of the few new Mississippi laws taking effect Jan. 1. Most bills passed during the 2001 legislative session became law July 1. Among the other laws coming in with the new year are additional regulations for people who sell insurance and new rules governing the sale of prepaid burial plans. The Mississippi Gaming Association, a lobbying group for casinos, didn't oppose the change in the jackpot tax law when lawmakers were considering it last spring. Executive director Andy Bourland said the group is now concerned the new law will drive away high-stakes customers who could gamble anywhere they want. ``For example, they can go to Las Vegas where they don't have to pay any state tax,'' Bourland said. He said Mississippi may lose more than it gains. ``In the long run, that may reduce the gross gaming revenues that we have come to expect,'' Bourland said.

Buelow said he expects some gamblers to be angry with the change _ but they were never happy about being taxed on their jackpots. ``They don't like the state to take any of it,'' he said.