New coast casino sites face scrutiny

Mississippi Senate proposes changes to casino approval process amid controversy in Biloxi

Reading time 1:49 min

The Mississippi Senate has introduced Senate Bill 2780 in response to concerns surrounding the approval process for a casino site in Biloxi, aiming to amend the state constitution to tighten regulations on new coast casino sites.

The bill, introduced before Monday’s legislative deadline, seeks to address issues related to the approval of new casinos on the beach, particularly concerning the use of Public Trust Tidelands. If passed, the legislation would mandate that any company seeking to utilize Public Trust Tidelands for a casino project must obtain a tidelands lease from the Secretary of State, and not from any city, county or municipality.

Last December, the Mississippi Gaming Commission granted site approval to RW Development for a casino project on U.S. 90 and Veterans Avenue in Biloxi. The decision sparked controversy as three previous Gaming Commissions had denied site approval, citing concerns that RW Development owner Ray Wooldridge did not have control of the property up to the water’s edge as required.

In response to the denials, RW Development returned with a lease from Biloxi and approval from Harrison County to construct a pier, providing a connection to the waterfront. This action followed a Supreme Court ruling affirming that a state Tidelands lease was not required to build the pier.

Senate Bill 2780 aims to establish clear guidelines for the Gaming Commission to follow in similar situations in the future.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. David Blount, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, and several Coast senators, seeks to provide consistency and transparency in the regulatory environment. The bill has been referred to the Senate Gaming, Ports, and Marine Resources committees for further consideration.

"I am working with the Secretary of State’s office and every Coast casino operator on the bill. Now more than ever, we need to restore a consistent regulatory environment to preserve the sand beach and encourage further investment and improvements in the Coast casino market," Blount said.

The bill includes provisions such as defining state jurisdiction over Public Trust Tidelands and the Secretary of State's authority to approve leases on these tidelands, declaring the legislative intent regarding tidelands and casino sites following Hurricane Katrina, mandating that anyone seeking a casino license obtain a tidelands lease through the Secretary of State and pay annual rent, clarifying the necessity of a tidelands lease even if the use is rent-exempt, and requiring state agencies and political subdivisions with littoral or riparian rights to also obtain a tidelands lease.

Secretary of State Michael Watson had expressed concerns about the approval process in January suggesting the decision may have been influenced by politics rather than legal considerations. He called upon the Mississippi Legislature to reaffirm the state’s ownership and control of Public Trust Tidelands, including the public sand beach in Harrison County.

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