• 37°

Legislature unknowingly approved casino gambling

By By Terry Cassreino / Assistant Managing Editor
June 9, 2002
It's an industry that has generated more than $2 billion in taxes since 1992, helping fund such basic needs as highways, law enforcement and public school teacher pay.
Some say it has kept Mississippi legislators from raising income and sales taxes. Others complain it has caused untold social problems by creating compulsive gamblers and draining personal bank accounts.
One thing is certain, however: Casino gambling is hands-down the biggest fluke in Mississippi history, an accident that eased through an unsuspecting state House and Senate and became law.
And with the 10th anniversary of the state's first casino less than two months away the Isle of Capri opened in Biloxi on Aug. 1, 1992 it's fitting to revisit an oft-told story about how that happened.
It's a story that shows how easily one lawmaker can manipulate the legislative process. It's one that shows how state House and Senate members sometimes approve legislation not knowing exactly what it will do.
And it's one that shows how an event that seemed so insignificant at the time can drastically alter history.
So step back to March 1990, when tourism was dying on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, unemployment was rampant in the Mississippi Delta and leaders were frantically looking for solutions.
It was the second year of Ray Mabus' administration, and he was busy pushing an expensive education reform package that was receiving lukewarm interest from legislators.
Back then, state Sen. Bob Dearing of Natchez authored a proposal for riverboat gambling on the Mississippi River even though he didn't believe it stood a chance to pass a largely anti-casino Legislature.
But senators surprised many observers when they approved the bill as written. Then, when it headed to the state House for consideration, the proposal took on a life of its own.
The proposal went to a House Ways and Means subcommittee chaired by Rep. H.L. "Sonny" Merideth Jr. of Greenville who promptly removed the three key words "underway, making way."
Those words would have required riverboats to offer casino gambling while cruising. Without them, the riverboats could offer casino gambling while stationed at dock.
When the House debated the bill March 7, Merideth confused lawmakers about the details. House members, many of whom were unaware of Merideth's change, blindly approved the proposal.
The bill then returned to the Senate. With word starting to spread about Merideth's change, supporters feared opponents in the Senate would kill the bill rather than send it to the governor.
They devised a plan: Top gambling opponents would leave the Senate chamber during the debate so supporters could accept the House changes to the bill and send it to Mabus.
So on March 14 a day in which all 52 state senators were present 10 members were suddenly absent when lawmakers voted 22-20 for the bill as changed by the state House.
Most of those absent were staunch gambling opponents. If at least two of them had voted against the bill, the issue likely would have died.
It didn't. Mabus signed the bill into law six days later. And when lawmakers returned in special session in June, they expanded the riverboat dockside gambling law to include the Coast.
Today, many lawmakers are likely to take more time when considering complicated bills. Mistakes still happen, and bills that should have died wind up passing and becoming law.
But in general, lawmakers appear to be more careful to make sure nothing as significant as casino gambling passes through the House or Senate without their full knowledge.
Meanwhile, the 29 casinos regulated by the state and one  soon to be two run by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians continue to thrive all the result of possibly the most successful accident to make it through the Legislature.