Some Mississippi gaming properties could now see nongaming tax breaks.

Bill would give tax breaks to Mississippi casino companies looking to expand nongaming business

Mississippi lawmakers are mulling a bill that could give tax breaks to the state’s gaming properties that build nongaming tourist attractions. The push for such a move coincides with recent analysis that shows the state - particularly the Gulf Coast communities of Biloxi and Gulfport - could be negatively impacted by casino expansions in Florida.

According to a memo released by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, Floridians made up 21.2 percent of the visitors to Mississippi’s 20 casino properties. Most of those visits were with Biloxi and Gulfport casinos. With gambling expansion occurring in Florida, PEER estimated Mississippi could lose $254 million in gaming and tax revenue, as well as 3,191 jobs should half of Florida’s visitors stay in their home state.

In more conservative estimates, $75.7 million in gaming and tax revenue and 1,595 jobs could be affected if 25 percent of visitors remain in Florida.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida recently received approval for Class III slots, and as many as 15,000 new machines are expected at the tribe’s six casinos in central and south Florida in the coming months.

“I don’t think anybody’s saying the sky’s falling, but we certainly want to be aware,” said PEER Executive Director Max Arinder. “These will be very attractive venues, very competitive. Anytime you create a choice (for customers), there’s the potential for loss.”

Enter House Bill 1196, which would allow Mississippi casinos to “diversify in other areas of the state,” House Tourism Committee Chairwoman Diane Peranich, D-Pass Christian, told the Hattiesburg American. Peranich said one example is a Tunica casino that wants to invest in a public-private project to build a sports arena.

The bill would allow tax breaks for casino companies that invest at least $10 million in nongaming attractions such as a theme park, water park, motor speedway and museums. The bill would also offer incentives to high-end hotel and golf course projects.

It’s not the first time a measure of this sort has been suggested, and each of the past attempts have failed. Peranich said the current bill will likely head to negotiations between House and Senate leaders.

Yet some, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, have opposed any move to expand the state’s casino operations beyond the seven counties they exist in now. State Sen. Lee Yancey, R-Brandon, has even authored his own bill to prevent any attempt at further expansion. He said a study of the state and federal tax structure in Mississippi, scheduled to be completed in August, should be reviewed before HB 1196 is even considered.

“If you look at (casino) revenues since Hurricane Katrina, they’ve shot through the roof. They’re doing extremely well,” Yancey told the American.

-Andy Holtmann