The first – and hopefully last – special session of 2018 is now over.
The Legislature passed three bills: a $200 million infrastructure bill; a lottery bill; and a bill to distribute BP settlement money throughout the state. We reviewed the infrastructure bill earlier in the week, and it has been signed into law by the governor.
The lottery bill did not pass without drama. In fact, the most interesting part of session was that it almost did not pass at all. On Monday night, the House stunned many observers by rejecting the lottery conference report. After “sleeping on it,” several members changed their vote the next morning. The initial vote on the conference report was 53 for and 61 against. The do-over vote was 58 for and 54 against. Up until the end of the special session members who had voted “No” during the do-over were switching their vote to “Yes.”
Mississippi’s path to a lottery
Once Gov. Phil Bryant came out in favor of the lottery, lawmakers began to feel it was inevitable. Long gone are the days when Gov. Ray Mabus (D) lost his re-election bid partly because of his support for the lottery. As Jake McGraw over at Rethink Mississippi details, the lottery was unconstitutional in Mississippi between 1868 and 1992. (Public opinion about lotteries seems to ebb and flow as ebbs and flows the controversy and corruption lotteries tend to facilitate.)
In 1992, voters cleared the way by amending the state constitution to allow for a lottery, but it took another 26 years before the lottery actually became law in Mississippi. One might wonder at this delay, but there is something to be said – said by James Madison, in fact – that public opinion often benefits from guidance, refinement – and delay. This refinement – owing to the divided form of government we all enjoy – is what distinguishes representative democracy from the tumult of purely majoritarian rule.
Mississippi becomes the 45th state to legalize the lottery, and our citizens will presumably no longer be crossing the state line to buy tickets in Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee. This phenomenon – that people are buying lottery tickets in other states – was one of the primary motivations to pass a lottery here. It is interesting, however, that the two states immune to this argument – Alaska and Hawaii – do not have lotteries. Just maybe these folks believe it’s bad policy.
Before going home on Wednesday, lawmakers were also forced to decide how to distribute $750 million in BP settlement funds – gotten from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Bickering over how to divvy up the windfall has preoccupied the Legislature for at least the past two sessions. The Senate bill proposed sending 75 percent of the money to the coast and 25 percent to the rest of the state. The House agreed, fending off several amendments and letting everyone go home Wednesday afternoon. Legislative leadership clearly wanted to avoid sending the bill to conference, where it would have become even more of a “Christmas tree.”
It has been reported that the 75 percent in settlement money will go to six counties: Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, Pearl River, Stone and George. The bill does not exactly say this. Rather, it stipulates the money will be used for programs and projects in the Gulf Coast region “as defined in the federal RESTORE Act, or twenty-five miles from the northern boundaries of the three coastal counties.” … So which is it? The RESTORE Act’s definition of the “Gulf Coast region” goes well beyond six counties. Which definition governs how the money is to be used? The language is a bit confusing (but I ain’t a lawyer, only a Ph.D.). This confusion could spawn more squabbling – if not a lawsuit or two.