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Pros and cons of legalized gambling in Biloxi

Florida lawmakers will consider making comprehensive changes to the state's gambling laws this spring. They'll look at everything from expanding legalized gambling to changing how it's regulated and more. A lot of what they're discussing is theoretical, so to get an idea of what really happens when gambling is legalized, we sent our Joe Douglass to Biloxi.

When the first legal casinos opened here back in 1992, the city of Biloxi in many ways hit the jackpot. Tourists began pouring in, eager to bet their hard-earned cash.

"I love playing the games," said Ruth Chonko, who's visiting from Florida, "I love the whole atmosphere of it."

Another tourist, Linda Hazelwood, said, "They've got the beach, the water, the casinos, good food."
The gaming industry here now employs around 13,000 people.

"Gaming has been very, very good for Biloxi," said Mayor A.J. Holloway.

Holloway says before gambling, the city was basically broke. But in its first 20 years the industry generated more than $1.7 billion in state and local gaming tax revenue.

"It's just a great thing for the school system," said Holloway.

The mayor says four new schools have been built and Biloxi now boasts the highest paid teachers in the state. He also says crime is down due to increased employment and a better equipped and better paid police force.

"We had more crime before casinos than we have now," said Holloway.

Of course, there are critics of legalized gambling.

A recent Pew study found Mississippi led the country in the rate of public officials convicted of corruption between 1985 and 2000. Researchers say the arrival of casino gambling likely made an existing problem worse.

Then there's gambling addiction.

"The difficulty is always when it becomes an obsession," said Father Gregory Barras, the pastor of St. Michael's Church in Biloxi.

Barras says over the years several of his parishioners have gotten into trouble because of compulsive gambling.

"Some of them get lost in it," said Barras, "They'll gamble away their paychecks. Some of them lose their homes."
The most recent study on gambling addiction in Mississippi was done way back in 1996. It found that just under seven percent of the state's residents had had problems with gambling at some point. The rate was higher than that of most other states, behind only Louisiana and New York.

Regarding gambling addiction, Mayor Holloway said, "I have not seen a lot of problems."