Mississippi Government Sets Sights on Financing Recovery

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour holds a special session of the legislature to organize the state's recovery strategy. Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast gambling industry, which provided at least 10 percent of state tax revenue. Scott Phillips from Mississippi Public Broadcasting reports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The former FEMA director, Michael Brown, is defending his role in the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Brown told a congressional panel this morning that the failures were due in part to a lack of coordination by state and local officials in Louisiana.

Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (Former FEMA Director): I very strongly, personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together.

INSKEEP: Michael Brown was testifying today before a special congressional committee. Brown resigned as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency earlier this month after he was removed from overall command of the federal government's response to the hurricane. Lawmakers are investigating the reaction to the storm.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in Mississippi, Governor Haley Barbour is calling state lawmakers into a special session this morning to address helping its citizens recover from Katrina. Gambling is a $3 billion business in Mississippi, and deciding how to help the casino industry rebuild is drawing lots of attention. Scott Phillips, with Mississippi Public Broadcasting, has this report.

SCOTT PHILLIPS reporting:

Casino gaming has been legal in Mississippi for 15 years now, but it's only allowed on barges along the Mississippi River or the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall, the 12 casinos along the Gulf Coast were bringing in a half-million dollars a day in tax revenues, which is why Governor Haley Barbour is asking lawmakers to allow the casinos to rebuild on land, given some portion is still touching water. Casino executives support the idea. Cheryl Teamer is vice president for government relations for Harrah's Entertainment, which owns casinos in Biloxi and Gulfport.

Ms. CHERYL TEAMER (Harrah's Entertainment): We would welcome the passage of legislation that would allow us to rebuild on shore, and if you look at the predictions from the National Weather Service and other weather agencies, we're moving into what they say is a 20-year period of storms and bad weather in the Gulf, so we want to make sure that when we rebuild, we rebuild it stronger and safer and better for our employees, for our customers and for the people in that community.

PHILLIPS: The religious community has always opposed gaming in Mississippi. In 1990, the water proposal was an 11th-hour compromise to get the legislation passed. Mississippi Baptist Convention spokesman William Perkins says if casinos are allowed to come off the water, it's only a matter of time before the entire state is fair game.

Mr. WILLIAM PERKINS (Mississippi Baptist Convention): It's the classic tale of the camel and the tent. First the camel's nose is under the tent and then his head is in the tent, and before you know it, the camel's in the tent with you. When you give the gambling political complex in Mississippi an inch, they do take a mile. We just don't understand why they can't abide by the law as it is written now. We wish they would leave, but if they're going to stay, they should follow the law like the rest of us have to.

PHILLIPS: House Gaming Committee Chairman Bobby Moak says he's listening to casino supporters and opponents. He says based on what he's heard, there's no indication casinos want to move inland.

State Representative BOBBY MOAK (Chairman, House Gaming Committee, Mississippi): I'm gonna tell you, from the industry people I've talked to, they would like to crawl out of the water, but let's just say opening up inland on any county where gaming is legal, no. We offer something on the Gulf Coast and along the Mississippi River they can't offer in Las Vegas, the number one market, and that's a view.

Unidentified Man: That's right.

Rep. MOAK: A view of the water.

PHILLIPS: Mississippi is the third largest gaming state behind Nevada and New Jersey. It's estimated that over 14,000 people are employed with the industry on the Gulf Coast. The governor's agenda will also include creating a small-business loan program and tax exemptions for qualified disaster assistance. For NPR News, I'm Scott Phillips in Jackson, Mississippi.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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