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Despite lotto frenzy, adoption seems unlikely in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss (AP) - It once seemed Mississippi was close to starting a lottery. In 1992, 53 percent of Mississippi voters chose to remove a state constitutional prohibition on lotteries. Then momentum stalled and lotteries remain prohibited under state law, with a penalty of five years in prison for anyone who operates one.

Today, many lawmakers remain opposed for religious reasons and to protect casinos.

State Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson, has long sponsored a bill supporting a lottery. She said Mississippi could use the money to subsidize college attendance, as many states do, or to provide money for road and bridge repairs.

Clarke said she hoped this week's huge Powerball jackpot might reopen the conversation.

"They're loading up and going to Tennessee and Louisiana," Clarke said of Mississippians seeking a ticket for the $1.5 billion prize.

Many Jackson-area residents drive west across the Mississippi River to buy tickets in the tiny crossroads of Delta, Louisiana, for example. The Chevron convenience store there is so congested that traffic has backed up onto Interstate 20 in recent days and the store had to hire security guards to direct traffic. Stores in border towns including Selmer, Tennessee, and Slidell, Louisiana, also have seen long lines.

Clarke said current House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, told her that he opposes a lottery for religious reasons. Gunn, a deacon in a Southern Baptist church, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

"The problem we have is getting a speaker or a lieutenant governor who would be brave enough to sign on," Clarke said.

But bills offered by Clarke and others have died with no serious consideration in recent years.

"All it's going to do is be a sucker bet and it's going to take your money that might've gone for food, might've gone for other things," Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, told WLBT-TV. He said he opposes gambling as a Baptist.

Mississippi had just adopted casino gaming in 1992, an industry that powered economic growth in the 1990s and now includes 31 private and tribal casinos. Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said Tuesday that casinos, with big investments and hundreds of employees, are preferable because they "provide real economic impact."

Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, who chaired the House Gaming Committee in the previous four-year term, disagreed. He said Mississippi's avoidance of a lottery isn't an attempt to protect casinos.

"I believe if you put it on the floor today, it would pass," he said.

Bennett, though, said he thought a lottery would not be as beneficial today as it would have been 25 years ago, before Arkansas and Tennessee adopted the games. Today, Alabama is the only non-lottery state bordering Mississippi.

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