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Surprise: A casino in Jackson? Bill would give special treatment to development

This story is developing and will be updated.

In a move that caught gaming regulators and the Mississippi casino industry by surprise, a bill being fast-tracked in the House on Tuesday would allow — and provide state support — for a casino on the Pearl River in Jackson.

It appears the developer of this casino, should the measure pass, would get unprecedented special treatment never shown another casino in Mississippi, including state financial backing and opening one specific site in a county that otherwise does not have legalized gambling.

House Ways and Means Chairman Trey Lamar late Monday filed House Bill 1989, for the state to provide loans and borrow money to help a casino development in the Jackson Capitol Complex Improvement District. Lamar’s committee is meeting Tuesday morning and expected to take up the measure.

The bill appears to sidestep the normal processes for a casino, and is aimed at helping only the one developer, unnamed in the bill. It would create a special fund for the project, and provide loans and issue bonds.

Both the director of the state Gaming Commission and the head of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association said they were caught by surprise by the proposal.

Mississippi’s casino industry has been praised for operating on a free-market system, with all developers going through the same licensing and other processes on a level field and the state has not in the past financially helped an individual project.

“Most people look at that as what has helped our system be successful,” said Jay McDaniel, director of the Mississippi Gaming Commission. “… All I can tell you is this is pretty much a surprise. The Gaming Commission has not been consulted … The question for me is, who makes the decision who gets that license?”

The bill says the site of the casino development would be within 6,000 feet of the state Capitol, owned by someone already operating a licensed casino and would have a minimum capital investment of $500 million.

Larry Gregory, director of the Mississippi Gaming and Hospitality Association, said he and member casino operators were also caught by surprise by the measure as he waited outside Ways and Means for a committee meeting to start.

A Senate leader on Tuesday said that former Gov. Haley Barbour has recently pushed the casino development with state lawmakers.

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