Mississippi to Allow Casinos Inland

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is expected to sign a bill this week that will allow casinos to be rebuilt up to 800 feet inland. Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed a dozen floating casinos along the Gulf Coast. Host Michele Norris talks to Emily Wagster Pettus, who covers the Mississippi legislature for The Associated Press, about the change.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Mississippi is going to allow some casinos to rebuild on dry land. Thirteen floating casinos along the Gulf Coast were damaged or destroyed when Hurricane Katrina blew through in August, tossing the ships and barges on shore like toys in a basement playroom. This week Governor Haley Barbour will sign a bill that will allow the casinos to rebuild on shore. Emily Wagster Pettus covers the Mississippi Legislature for the Associated Press and joins us now.

Emily, what was the debate over this bill like?

Ms. EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS (The Associated Press): It was a very contentious debate. On the one hand, you had business leaders from the Gulf Coast who believed that allowing the casinos to go to more secure locations on shore would be the first big step in reviving the economy that's just been ruined by Katrina. On the other side, you had people with deeply held religious views who didn't want to see any expansion of gambling in Mississippi.

NORRIS: And so now that the bill has passed, on its way to a signature from the governor, what's the reaction?

Ms. PETTUS: I think a lot of social conservatives in this state are deeply disappointed in Governor Barbour. He was elected in 2003 by putting together a coalition of social conservatives and money people, as it were. And some of the people I've interviewed over the last few days voted for Governor Barbour last time, and couple of them are saying that they're just not going to do it again because they really felt like he should have taken a strong stand against allowing casinos to go on lands.

NORRIS: Emily, just help us understand something. Why were casinos restricted from building on land in the first place?

Ms. PETTUS: This law was enacted in 1990, and at the time it was sort of an uneasy compromise that allowed the casinos to go into touristy areas along the river and--Mississippi River and along the Gulf Coast. Illegal gambling had kind of been winked at on the coast for decades, and I think there were some thinking that, `OK, you know, we'll allow this to happen, but we're just going to have a very strict restriction on, you know, geographically where it could go.'

NORRIS: Now that they can actually rebuild on shore, what does the bill say about where they can actually locate these buildings?

Ms. PETTUS: They can go 800 feet on shore or in Harrison County, which is the center of the three coast counties. It's the home to Biloxi and Gulfport, actually the home of most of the coast casinos. It can go 800 feet or to the southern boundary of US Highway 90, which is a major east-west thoroughfare. In most of Harrison County, it runs right along the beach, but in some places it's a little bit more than 800 feet. And so in those cases, the bill says 800 feet or to the southern boundary of the highway, whichever's greater. So, in some cases, you'll see casinos sneak across the highway a block or two, and in other cases they'll just go right up to the highway itself.

NORRIS: And the casinos that are along the Mississippi River?

Ms. PETTUS: This bill does not affect the river casinos at all. They have to remain on the river.

NORRIS: They'll still be on the water.

Ms. PETTUS: That's right.

NORRIS: Well, jobs are such a big part of this issue. How many people worked in these casinos?

Ms. PETTUS: There were between 14,000 and 18,000 people who worked in the casinos. There were 12 casinos open, and one, the Hard Rock, that was just getting ready to open when Katrina hit; so direct jobs, 14 to 18,000. And then if you add in the suppliers, the people who sell the beer and the soft drinks and the vegetables and things like that to the casinos, you're looking at about 50,000 jobs, which in a community the size of the Gulf Coast, where you have roughly 400,000 people, that's a significant number of jobs.

NORRIS: And what about tax revenues?

Ms. PETTUS: Half a million dollars a day is being lost right now in state and local tax revenue from the coast casinos.

NORRIS: And is Mississippi going to be more attractive now to the gambling industry, now that they can actually build on dry land?

Ms. PETTUS: That's a good question. There has been quite a bit of positive reaction from the gambling industry about this, so I think it could well be.

NORRIS: Emily Wagster Pettus covers the Mississippi Legislature for the Associated Press.

Emily, thanks so much.

Ms. PETTUS: Good to talk to you.

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