Roads Could Lose Gaming Tax

Fri February 18, 2005 - Southeast Edition

JACKSON, MS (AP) The state Senate has delayed action on a proposal to divert gaming taxes from a casino road fund to the public schools.

Senators have put the bill aside so absent lawmakers — among them opponent Sen. Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport, could be on hand for debate. Hewes is chairman of the transportation committee.

A program approved in 1994 diverted a portion of the gaming tax to a fund to improve highways going to and from the casinos. The Department of Transportation used the money to repay bonds that financed the construction projects.

While the gaming road program was scheduled to end in 2012, lawmakers later extended it until 2022.

However, a severe funding shortage this year has lawmakers again scrambling to find extra money.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, wanted the $58 million in the fund to be used for the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). He proposed the diversion of gaming taxes in an amendment to an education bill dealing with money for school supplies and equipment.

MAEP is a funding formula adopted in 1997 to ensure every school district receives enough money to meet midlevel accreditation standards.

MAEP was underfunded by $79 million in the current fiscal year. Proposals for education funding from Gov. Haley Barbour and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee do not cover the amount the Department of Education is requesting for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“I’m trying to help your county and every other one in the state,” Chaney told senators.

Mississippi has 29 state-regulated casinos located along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast.

“My county has contributed [to the fund]. I am not voting on the issue based on what I’ve got in my area,” said Chaney, who lives in Vicksburg, where four casinos operate.

Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said even with the $58 million in diverted funds, the school districts would still be underfunded by millions of dollars.

“What I’m worried about is when the time comes for the maintenance on gaming roads, the money used for that won’t be there,” said Dearing, whose hometown has one casino.