LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas lottery officials are keeping a nervous eye on Mississippi as that state’s legislators prepare to consider creating a state lottery.
Officials say they don’t want to lose the revenue the lottery now receives from Mississippi residents who cross the state line to play Arkansas’ lottery, especially at a time when lottery revenues are already in decline.
Of the six states surrounding Arkansas, only Mississippi does not have a lottery. In 1992, a proposal to remove a lottery ban from the Mississippi Constitution was approved by 53 percent of voters, but to date the state’s lawmakers have not passed legislation to create a lottery.
The chairman of Mississippi’s House Gaming Committee has said he will hold fact-finding hearings on the subject of a state lottery in advance of the legislative session that begins Jan. 8, and at least one Mississippi lawmaker has announced plans to file a lottery bill.
That worries Arkansas lottery officials. Before Arkansas’ lottery launched in September 2009, it was estimated that Arkansans were spending between $80 million and $100 million a year on lotteries in adjacent states. After the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery launched, stores in eastern Oklahoma reported an immediate drop in sales of that state’s lottery tickets.
Arkansas Lottery Director Bishop Woosley said the program has not done a study to determine how much money Mississippi residents are spending on Arkansas’ lottery, but he said it is surely enough to affect the bottom line if it were taken away.
"Given the history of the last four or five years and what we’ve seen from them taking from us, and then, alternatively, us taking from other states, it would have an impact," he said.
Woosley said people are especially willing to cross state lines to buy lottery tickets when jackpots soar. He noted that on Nov. 28, the day of Powerball’s record-high $587.5 million jackpot drawing, three of the 10 top-selling Arkansas lottery retailers were in Lake Village, a few miles from the Mississippi state line.
"That’s kind of telling," he said.
The possibility of new competition for the lottery is especially unwelcome while sales are lagging. Officials say Arkansas’ lottery is on track to raise $90 million for college scholarships during the current fiscal year, down from $97 million the previous year.
During the upcoming session in Arkansas, which begins Jan. 14, legislators are expected to consider reducing the amounts of lottery-funded college scholarships or raising eligibility requirements in an effort to keep the scholarship program afloat. Without some kind of change, the program is expected to run out of money sometime in 2014 or 2015.
Supporters of a Mississippi lottery acknowledge that they have their work cut out for them.
"I’ve tried it six different times, and I’m going to try it again this year," said Mississippi Rep. Alyce Clarke, D-Jackson.
Clarke said Mississippians play the lottery, but they do so by driving to Arkansas, Louisiana or Tennessee.
"It doesn’t make sense to me to take our money to other states," she said. "I’m saying to my people that we need to educate our children, just as they’re doing theirs. It doesn’t make sense to continuously pretend that we are not playing the lottery."
Clarke said her past lottery bills have failed to get out of committee. She said some legislators say they oppose a lottery for religious reasons, but she believes her biggest opponent is the powerful casino industry.
Larry Gregory, executive director of the Mississippi Casino Operators Association, confirmed that the association has opposed lottery bills in the past. He said he did not want to discuss the reasons for its opposition because the association is currently preparing its testimony for the upcoming House Gaming Committee hearings.
The casino industry casts a tall shadow in Mississippi. According to a 2011 study by Mississippi State University, casino revenues in the state totaled $2.5 billion in the 2009 calendar year.
Mississippi Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, who has supported lottery bills in the past, said the casino industry has enough sway among legislators to make sure lottery bills die in committee.
"They know where to apply the pressure to kill it so it never gets to the floor," he said.
Asked if he thinks Mississippi will ever have a state lottery, Bailey said, "Not in my lifetime."
But Clarke said filing a lottery bill is not the only effort she has planned. She said she hopes to be involved in an effort to place a citizens’ initiative to create a lottery on the ballot and believes that if it is put before voters, they will pass it.
"My mom was 85 years young when I ran for the Legislature, and I asked my mama, I said, ‘Mama, do you think I can do that?’ She said, ‘Haven’t I always told you, you don’t know what you can do unless you try?’" Clarke said.