Creating a lottery has been mostly just a sidebar debate in Mississippi and the Legislature for decades — oft discussed, but never gonna happen.
Ever since former Gov. Ray Mabus' ill-fated push for one in 1990 helped get him un-elected, any effort to create a lottery has faced a certain gubernatorial veto and was, therefore, moot.
That appears to have changed.
As recently as January, Gov. Phil Bryant called the idea of a lottery a "silly notion," and more directly said, "I am not for it."
But talk of a lottery has intensified as state revenue flags. And large Powerball jackpots have sent Mississippians scurrying across our borders to buy lottery tickets (all surrounding states except Alabama have them). The state House — although it was considered something of a protest vote most knew would never pass into law — voted 81-34 on a bill that was amended to create a lottery. The amendment was later stripped.
Last week when a local reporter requested comments from the state's three "wise men" — Gov. Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn — Bryant's response was stunning.
"I would be open to a general discussion regarding a statewide lottery," the governor said in a written statement. "However, I would be opposed to this particular revenue being dedicated to specific expenses, such as public education. Our children's future should not be left to a game of chance."
This marks the first time in nearly 30 years that a Mississippi governor has said anything about a state lottery that didn't indicate they'd smack it quickly and hard with their veto stamp.
That seems significant.
Reeves, the lead GOP hopeful for governor in 2019, had a more meandering response, but he didn't say absolutely no. He said casinos provide real economic impact and jobs and careers and some questions about a lottery would have to be answered before he'd support it.
"The economic question that must be answered: Would a state lottery add to the economic pie or would it simply shift Mississippians' disposable income from one outlet to another? ... Would any perceived increase in revenue from a lottery be offset by reductions in sales tax collections and gaming receipts?"
Another likely 2019 gubernatorial candidate, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, kept his powder less dry on a lottery. At this summer's Neshoba County Fair, he floated the idea of a lottery as a way to help the state budget and public education.
Perhaps ironically, only Gunn, whose House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a lottery (even if the vote was for grins and giggles), responded with outright opposition.
"I do not favor a state lottery or the issue coming to the House floor again for a vote," Gunn said in his initial written statement. Then he followed up with a "furthermore": "I have not seen any data that shows a lottery would bring any additional income to the state. It is unknown if there would be any financial benefit to the state."
Could a House speaker hold back the tide if the state budget remains in the tank and a lottery movement were to gain real momentum? Many voters might consider a lottery a whole lot more tolerable than a tax increase.
Gunn is right, there doesn't appear to be any recent solid data on a state lottery. Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, who authored the lottery amendment the House passed this year, said during floor debate it would generate $160 million for the state. But he appeared to pull that figure from his ear to argue for his last-minute, handwritten lottery amendment.
Back in 1989, the legislative watchdog PEER Committee did some rough ciphering and told lawmakers a lottery would net the state only $10 million to $45 million a year. But then it came back in 1993 and estimated the state would net $50.7 million a year after payouts and expenses.
Alabama's Legislature fought all summer over a lottery and narrowly killed the initiative. A study commissioned by lawmakers there said Alabama could net $332 million a year with a lottery, although opponents accused that data of having been pulled from someone's ear as well.
Louisiana's lottery had a record year in fiscal 2016, grossing $508 million, with $178 million going to the state, mostly for public education.
Mississippi House Gaming Committee Chairman Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, said he is often bombarded by lawmakers and residents pushing a lottery. He said past PEER calculations were cursory and are now outdated, and he'd like to see the committee do an in-depth analysis of what money, benefits and problems a lottery would bring.
Mississippi has had legalized casino gambling for nearly 25 years. A lottery ticket for many Mississippians is just a quick trip across the state line away. And illegal and quasi-legal gambling is just a mouse click away on a computer. Neither the casino nor religious lobbies appear all that concerned about the lottery — they're certainly not marching on the Capitol at its mention as they did years ago.
The question now may be whether it becomes a real legislative issue again or even a populistic running platform for the 2019 elections.
A Mississippi lottery is obviously not the political third rail it once was.