Facing political flak from the governor, legislative leaders and existing casinos, the state Gaming Commission on Thursday quietly backed off a move that would have opened areas along Coast beaches for casino development where it had previously been prohibited.
The three gaming commissioners had little comment on their demurral Thursday, or why they were considering changing the rules to allow casinos to build on sites where they don’t own property touching the water.
The move would appear to fly in the face of the intent of a law passed — after intense debate and promises it wouldn’t expand the number of potential casino sites — by the state Legislature after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Coast casino industry. It also would have broken casinos' direct ties to the water -- an important facet of the 1992 law legalizing gambling in Mississippi, a caveat that has intentionally limited the areas where casinos could be built.
The commissioners on Thursday referred all questions to Gaming Commission Director Allen Godfrey, who said only, “The commissioners … will not go down this road, or have chosen to leave the regulation as it stands.” They did not definitively answer whether the change might be introduced again later.
Gov. Phil Bryant, who appointed the gaming commissioners, opposed the rule change, a likely factor in them dropping it.
“As he has made clear before, Gov. Bryant strongly opposes any regulatory or statutory changes that would expand gaming in Mississippi,” Bryant spokesman Clay Chandler said. This echoes statements from previous governors who vowed to limit spread of casinos beyond select waterfront sites.
The rules change also faced opposition from the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association, which represents existing Coast casinos, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann who oversees casino leases of state-owned tidelands along the Mississippi Sound and bays and from Legislative leaders including House Gaming Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach.
After Katrina's destruction of the Coast in 2005, state and local officials feared Coast casinos would not rebuild if forced to remain on floating barges highly susceptible to hurricanes. Loss of the casino industry and its tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs would have been devastating to both the Coast and state economies.
Coast lawmakers proposed legislation to allow casinos to be built on land within 800 feet of the water (not counting the beach highway in the calculation). It passed in special session after much debate, and only after many lawmakers were assured casino properties would still have to include tidelands and water bottoms, thus limiting them to sites that were suitable before the storm. Some lawmakers, including then House Gaming Chairman Bobby Moak, went so far as to enter into the official House or Senate Journals that their intent with passage of the on-land casinos law was that the properties must still border the water.
The Gaming Commission included such caveats in its regulations after the new law passed, and has turned down at least two casino projects that did not have ownership or control of property bordering the water.
But new Gaming Commissioners Al Hopkins, Jerry Griffith Sr. and Tomas Gresham apparently interpreted the law differently, and had said the proposed change would bring gaming regulations in line with the law.
Bennett sent commissioners a letter on Wednesday saying he believes the "plain language" of the law already requires casino properties to include tidelands and urged them not to adopt the rule change. He said they should at least wait until after lawmakers convene in session in January so the Legislature could make its intent that casinos should stay on waterfront property.
"If there is anything Mississippi has done right, it is gaming," Bennett said in an interview. "We have the strictest laws, no corruption and have always had clear interpretation of the law. The public was sold on this on the basis that casinos would be limited to certain areas, and we owe it to the citizens to stick to that."
This story originally appeared in The Clarion-Ledger.