Rushed lottery law

Addressing a group of press and involved citizens at the Stennis Capitol Press Forum, 34-year veteran state senator Hob Bryan delivered a persuasive evisceration of the state legislature’s most recent special session creating a lottery to help fund repairs to our state’s crumbling roads and bridges.

Bryan’s criticism mirrors the same criticisms we have heard many times before from numerous other legislators: The bill was presented as a fait accompli with almost no input from legislators and little time to debate the fundamentals. The total funding for roads and bridges is a fraction of what is needed to bring our maintenance budget in line with reality. By Bryan’s calculation, the total additional funding to MDOT is $30 million a year, less than one-tenth the amount studies have shown is necessary.

Further, the new state lottery will be run by a private corporation with an exemption from our open records and open meetings laws, despite controlling $200 million a year in state money. Neighboring Louisiana requires its lottery company to comply with its open records laws. Further, the board of the new private lottery corporation is appointed entirely by the governor. Bryan believes this will open the door for corruption.

In Bryan’s own words:

“It’s every bad idea imaginable squeezed into one special session. It’s like drinking from a fire hose, there are so many bad, unconscionable long term bad things going on, it’s hard to know where to start.

“The lottery was a bad idea when Ray Mabus proposed it. It’s a bad idea today. It’s simply not right to have the government run a numbers racket to swindle its citizens. It preys on not merely the poor, but it preys on the poor who are most susceptible to some sort of pie in the sky scheme.

“The bill was introduced during the special session. It’s 132 pages. It was assigned to the Highway and Transportation Committee, no doubt because of that committee’s experience and expertise in the field of lotteries. When the bill was approved, it had only been around for a few hours and no one had the time to work through all of it.

“The bill sets up a corporation. I still can’t tell you what this thing is. There was no meaningful discussion, no meaningful debate about why it was necessary to set up this corporation. Why couldn’t this be handled in an office at the state tax commission? What do other states do? All I know is we had a 132-page bill and it went through the highway committee in a couple of hours. Some of us did the best we could to figure out what was going on.

“The bill sets up a corporation whose board of governors is appointed by the governor. They hire an executive director. The executive director can be vetoed by the governor. I don’t think it’s subject to many government controls at all. Our ethics laws apply to money that is appropriated by the government, but the lottery money is not appropriated. So you have this entity out here acting in the name of the state of Mississippi selling lottery tickets and it gets the proceeds from the lottery tickets. It sends some of that money to the state. The money is not state funds until it gets put in the state treasury. The lottery corporation gets 15 percent to do with what it will. The lottery president can go hire folks. He can hire consultants. He can hire advisors. He can hire PR people. He can hire experts. He can hire all these people completely and totally outside all the restrictions that apply to public money. And the person doing all this hiring was appointed by five people who were appointed by the governor. The bill specifically exempted the corporation from open meetings and open records laws. Do you think when it comes time to do all this contracting, the people over there might remember who it is who appointed them? Even if Gov. Bryant is a saint, we shouldn’t pass laws on the assumption that nobody is going to succumb to temptation.”

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