|By Tom Wilemon, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 16, 2005 - BILOXI -- Rep. Bobby Moak, the chairman of the House Gaming Committee, supports legislation to allow casino companies to "crawl out of the water," but he wants it to be crystal clear on some key points.
It should be limited to existing casino projects, it should apply to river counties as well as the Coast, and it should contain a strong legal definition of where casinos can go. How far they can move ashore is yet to be determined, but Moak said one requirement should be that the property be contiguously owned.
He met last week with the Mississippi Casino Operators Association in Gulfport and has had follow-up discussions. Casino legislation is likely to be a top priority when Gov. Haley Barbour calls a special session to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"From virtually everybody I have spoken to, they are willing to come back bigger and better than ever," Moak said.
However, the industry has hotly debated the pros and cons of any new legislation.
Harrah's Entertainment, the largest employer of casino workers in Mississippi and the world's biggest gambling company, insisted on land-based casinos before committing to rebuild. Gary Loveman, the company's CEO, promised last week to build something "spectacular" if the state dropped its dockside requirement.
MGM Mirage, the second largest company and the owner of Beau Rivage, quickly came out against any change in state law. The company appears to be backpedaling. In an interview broadcast this week on CNBC, Alan Feldman, a senior vice president of MGM, said, "We have no disagreement with the notion of building on land that is currently sited as a casino."
While the two big boys were throwing their weight around, representatives of smaller Coast casinos complained about being left out of the discussions. They resented the American Gaming Association, which has had discussions with Gov. Barbour, playing a role in the debate.
"This is not the time for the American Gaming Association to try and represent the special interests of two or three of the larger publicly traded companies," said Bernie Burkholder, CEO of Treasure Bay. "They do not represent my company or any of the smaller, independently owned gaming companies in Mississippi."
Keith Crosby, the general manager of the Palace Casino, said a sizable number of the 17,000 casino workers on the Coast make their livelihoods from the smaller companies.
Moak promised to give the smaller companies "equal footing" and a "real voice at the table." He said the debates and disagreements did not surprise him.
"The first thing out of the box is that everybody is all over the board," Moak said. "That's understandable because that's the way it usually is with any other issue with any other group. But as the days go on, they become more cohesive in their message."
He said the same rules should apply in the river counties with legalized gambling because the state should not create "Class A and Class B markets." He insisted that the benefits of any new law be limited to existing companies or those that had already committed to coming here.
"Call it loyalty," Moak said. "Call it anything you want to. They are the known entities who are here who helped create the market."
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