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Mississippi Riverboat Gambling Expansion Bill Dead in the Water

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A proposed bill that aimed to authorize riverboat gambling in Mississippi's capital has met its demise after failing to advance out of committee. It's another blow to gambling in the state after a similar bill was rejected several years ago.

Bill Unable to Gain Traction

Senate Bill 2820 (SB 2820), introduced by Senator John Horhn, was designed to permit gambling cruise vessels on the Pearl River or neighboring bodies of water within cities with a population exceeding 145,000. The legislation, presented on February 19, would have become effective on July 1, just ahead of Independence Day festivities. However, on Tuesday, the proposed amendment was rejected in the Senate Gaming Committee.

Related: Mississippi Lawmaker Proposes New Online Betting Legislation

Presently, the Mississippi Gaming Control Act (MGCA) allows riverboat gambling in counties along the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast, subject to regional voter endorsement. Over the years since its enactment in 1990, more than 30 dockside gambling establishments have been established along the Mississippi's banks.

The landscape has evolved considerably since then, with traditional riverboats transforming into the resort-style complexes that adorn the Gulf Coast. Moreover, following Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the coastal casino industry, lawmakers modified regulations to allow gaming venues to relocate up to 800 feet inland, a provision many have utilized.

If Horhn's bill had been approved, it would have potentially enabled the establishment of shoreline casinos along the Pearl River, which spans two-thirds of Mississippi's territory. Notably, the Pearl traverses Jackson, the state's capital, before dividing into East and West Pearl Rivers, 30 miles prior to reaching the Gulf of Mexico.

A Fine Line

Even though SB 2820 would have likely benefited Jackson, the sole city meeting the population criterion, uncertainties loomed due to the city's declining population trend. According to the most recent census data in 2021, Jackson's population dipped below 150,000 for the first time since before 1970, further declining to 145,995 by 2022.

This rapid depopulation has earned Jackson the dubious distinction of being the fastest-shrinking US city with at least 50,000 inhabitants, surpassing San Francisco. Because the bill was based on population, Jackson's transition is impeding its progress.

Unofficial estimates for 2024 suggest Jackson's population has dwindled to 138,531. Even as Mississippi's largest city, Jackson would not meet the population threshold for Horhn's proposed riverboat legislation.

The bill aimed to amend Mississippi law to allow gambling vessels to operate within the corporate limits of municipalities with a population of 145,000 or more, according to the most recent federal decennial census. However, the ambiguity surrounding the definition of "corporate limits of a municipality" has impeded the bill's progress.

While Horhn's bill may have encompassed the entirety of the Jackson Metropolitan Statistical Area, which boasted a population of 580,280 in 2018, a similar bill he introduced in 2021 faced a similar fate due to the population requirement of 150,000. This parallelism underscores the rapid decline in Jackson's population, outpacing Horhn's efforts to expand riverboat gambling legislation.

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