Every time a Powerball jackpot grows to life-altering levels, Mississippians pour across the state line to buy tickets.
Americans spent $73 billion on lottery tickets last year, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.
Mississippi voters approved a state lottery back in 1992, but the Legislature never followed up and has voted down all of the dozens of bills introduced to legalize the lottery. In the last session, Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, sponsored a bill that would allow Powerball tickets to be sold at the state’s casinos and Sen. Tommy Gollott, R-Biloxi, sponsored a lottery bill that would funnel lottery proceeds into education, roads and bridges in the state.
Mississippi is one of only six states that doesn’t allow a lottery, along with Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. Alabama came close to approving a lottery in a special session in August.
The other 43 states and the District of Columbia last year diverted $20 billion in lottery proceeds into their general funds or for education and programs for seniors, the environment and economic development.
Louisiana directed $185 million last year from the lottery into the state coffers. The winners were the lucky ticketholders and Louisiana, which banked the proceeds, part of which came from Mississippians.
Wyoming started its lottery in 2014 because of the number of people who were buying lottery tickets in neighboring states.
So is Mississippi losing money that could help fully fund education or shore up some of the state’s budget shortfall?
Or is the state Legislature keeping residents from spending money on lottery tickets that would be better spent elsewhere?
One fact: Look at the number of cars with Mississippi plates parked at the convenience stores in Louisiana when the Powerball jackpots swell.
“That’s revenue lost that should be staying in the state,” said Alan Silver, assistant professor at Ohio University and part-time Pass Christian resident.
The probability of winning is enormous — 1 in 292 million for the Powerball jackpot — but, he acknowledges, “It’s a good dream.”
The upside of a lottery is it would improve the lifestyle in the state, especially if the proceeds go to education, Silver said. The downside is people who can’t afford to play the lottery may buy tickets thinking they will win and all their dreams will come true.
Gov. Phil Bryant recently told the Clarion-Ledger he’d be willing to discuss a state lottery, becoming the first Mississippi governor in about 30 years to say so. He said he wouldn’t want to dedicate the revenue to specific areas such as public education.
“Our children’s future should not be left to a game of chance,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told the newspaper his decision on a state lottery would depend on whether it would bring in new money or take money from sales taxes and casinos.
One of the reasons most frequently given for not having a lottery in Mississippi is it would take money away from the casinos.
“I don’t think it would affect the casinos,” said Father Richard McGowan, a Jesuit priest and associate professor at Carroll School of Management at Boston College who frequently writes about lotteries and casinos.
McGowan is using Mississippi as an “outlier” in a book he is writing and said Mississippi is the only state outside of Nevada to allow casinos before a lottery.
Some in Mississippi say a lottery should be banned for religious reasons.
“To me it’s a morally neutral act,” McGowan said. Just as an alcoholic shouldn’t drink and a problem gambler shouldn’t gamble, he said a person who can’t control lottery spending shouldn’t play the lottery. It shouldn’t be banned for everyone, he said.
About 2.5 percent of Americans are identified as problem gamblers.
Lotteries are an inconsistent source of revenue for the states and an impulse buy, McGowan said. When the price of gasoline goes up, lottery sales go down, and just how successful Mississippi’s lottery would be could depend on what the state is willing to spend on advertising the games.
As much as 80 percent of lottery sales come from scratch games rather than Powerball, McGowan said. In Massachusetts, the games are tied in to the New England Patriots, Boston Celtics and other national sports teams in the region.
And where Mississippi is still talking about allowing a lottery, McGowan said, Massachusetts is considering putting lottery sales online.
A June Gallup survey shows the number of Americans who said they bought a state lottery ticket in the last year is 49 percent. That is down from 57 percent in 1996, despite seven more states allowing lotteries over that period.
“The exact reason for the decline in Americans’ reports of playing the lottery during the last 13 years is not clear, although gamblers now also have a wider range of gambling avenues from which to choose, including the proliferation of online poker and online fantasy sports leagues,” Gallup said.
And whether or not Mississippi legalizes a lottery, its residents will continue to buy lottery tickets.
“No matter who you are you dream of what you could do with that money,” McGowan said.