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Gaming In Mississippi: Where does the money go?

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JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

Whenever the topic of gaming comes up in Mississippi most people ask the same question: Doesn't the money the state gets go to education? 

We learned that is a common mis-conception. 

3 On Your Side spoke with the Chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission and the Executive Director about where the money goes,  how the gaming industry is doing  and whether the future is built on a house of cards.

Gaming was introduced to Mississippi in 1990.  Many supported bringing casinos to the state to River communities like Vicksburg, Natchez,  Greenville, Lula and Tunica.  And of course on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Business was booming until Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"We almost got to 3 billion in 2007 after Katrina, you know what happened in 2007?  Everybody else started approving casinos", John M. Hairston, Chairman of the Mississippi Gaming Commission told us.

Hairston and the other Commissioners worked tirelessly along with Gaming Commission staffers and the Casino companies to get back up and running.  But the numbers have not been the same in recent years. Tunica is now struggling. 

"So that 2.7 billion has now declined between 2007 and 2013 to a little over 2.1 billion. So we've seen a pretty dramatic decrease in total revenue, really more out of Tunica than the other markets", said Hairston.

 Gaming got support in this bible belt state because many were willing to compromise… believing with each pull of the wheel, and every deal of the cards, money would go to education.  That is not how the  law was written.  Chairman Hairston explains.

"It's up to the local jurisdictions, the local elected officials to decide how much of that money goes to schools, how much goes to public safety, how much may go to road building or something that spurs economic development. But its up to the local folks to do that", Hairston added.

Communities on the coast have put their gaming dollars to good use, building new schools. There are also new schools in Tunica.  So how much money from gaming goes to education?  We talked with the business manager for  the Natchez Adams School District who says they have  received none.. zero.  We have also learned the school district has made at least 54 different requests to county leaders.  Allen Godfrey is the Executive Director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. 

"Each one of those localities has a local and private bill that specifically states a certain amount of money to go towards education", Executive Director, Allen Godfrey said.

The money generated from gaming is vital to the state's economic health, and for jobs in communities with little or no other industry.  Mississippi has a earned the reputation of being one of the best places for gaming.  Businessmen have said leaders with the gaming commission run a tight ship, they are fair, but will bring down the hammer.

"We've encouraged new properties when they come in to bring more rooms, hotel rooms, more amenities that will draw tourism and promote economic growth as opposed to just more slot machines and table games", said Godfrey.

Hairston says the benefits of gaming are evident and while the Gaming Commission doesn't hold the cards on how revenue is spent in gaming communities, he does have some suggestions.

"In my opinion, the preponderance of that money ought to go to public safety, education, and education doesn't necessarily mean brick and mortar. It could be financial literacy, it may be a trade, it may be, whatever it may need to be to get unemployment lower in that county", Hairston said.

At one point as many as 28 thousand people were employed in the gaming industry.  It is now around 23 thousand.

We also talked with Superintendent Chad Shealy of the Vicksburg Warren School District. His district gets about half a million dollars  each year from gaming.  Everett Chinn the P-R Director for the Greenville Public School District tells us for the 2012-2013 school year, the City of Greenville budgeted 170 thousand dollars but they are still working to acquire those funds.

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