By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi residents for years have been crossing into Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee to buy lottery tickets.
In 2018, lawmakers could debate whether Mississippi will join the large majority of states that offer games of chance.
Supporters say money being spent on lottery tickets elsewhere could, instead, be spent in Mississippi, creating revenue to help pay for highways, schools or other state government services.
"If that money is going to go to educate children and it's going to go to fix roads and bridges, then it ought to be in Mississippi," Rep. Mark Baker, a Republican from Brandon, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I'm just being a realist about it."
Opponents, including leaders of the influential Mississippi Baptist Convention, say lotteries are spiritually corrupting and the games create unrealistic hopes for people who struggle to pay their own living expenses.
"It's pretty well documented that gambling, like alcohol, is not the best thing that can happen for Mississippi families. So, Mississippi Baptists are against gambling because it corrupts the soul," William Perkins, editor of the convention's weekly newspaper, the Baptist Record, said at the state Capitol in May.
Mississippi is one of six states without a lottery, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The others are Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant suggested during his 2017 State of the State address that Mississippi should consider creating a lottery as a way to generate revenue without raising taxes. Weeks later, the House approved a lottery on a loud voice vote. But when a representative requested an electronic vote to record the yes or no of each member, there were only 40 votes in favor and 74 against. The proposal failed.
Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn of Clinton, who's a leader in his Baptist church, opposes the lottery. After the 2017 legislative session ended, though, Gunn created a group that spent months studying the issue. Members gathered information about how much money other states have made from their lotteries, but made no recommendations for or against creating a lottery in Mississippi.
Mississippi voters in November 1992 removed the state constitution's prohibition on a lottery, but the games of chance are still banned by general state law.
The first casinos opened in Mississippi in August 1992, and since then, an unlikely alliance of religious groups and casino operators has opposed creating a lottery in the state.
Casinos are now more targeted in their opposition. The director of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association, Larry Gregory, told the lottery study group in November that casino operators would not be against the creation of a state lottery that sells paper tickets for scratch-off games or multistate Powerball games - but they oppose video gambling in places like bars and convenience stores.
Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr., a Democrat who served on the study group, said that like other members, he is not taking a position for or against a lottery. But, he said if one is created, legislators should not put the lottery revenue into the general state budget. Rather, he said the money should be used to build up the state's rainy day fund, which provides a financial cushion in case of shortfalls in tax collections.
"You could collect it a year before you spent out of it. And it's a safeguard - a conservative safeguard," Flaggs said in November.
Mississippi's state economist, Darrin Webb, said in November that Mississippi residents spend an estimated $5 million to $10 million a year playing the lottery in Arkansas and about $30 million playing the lottery in Louisiana. Webb said the figures came from lottery administrators in those states.
The study group examined how much money neighboring states collected, after prizes were awarded and expenses were paid, during the budget year that ended June 30, 2016. The figure for Arkansas was $85.2 million. For Louisiana, it was $177.9 million. For Tennessee, it was $395 million.
Mississippi Senate Finance Committee Chairman Joey Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, said Tuesday that he opposes a lottery but would allow his committee to vote on a bill if one is filed. While some lottery supporters have suggested the state should earmark any collections for highways, Fillingane said the Department of Transportation has requested roughly $300 million to $400 million for a long-term program of construction and improvements and he thinks a lottery would generate only about $50 million to $100 million a year.
"It's not the end-all, be-all that some people think it is," Fillingane said.
Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.