By: Sid Salter
The word out of Jackson is now that Gov. Phil Bryant has signed the Alyce G. Clarke Mississippi Lottery Act into law, it will take about a year to get the lottery up and running. When that transpires, Mississippians who want to play the lottery and those non-gamblers who will merely benefit from the tax revenue should give pause to remember the great lady for whom the lottery act was named.
There are few Mississippi legislators for whom I have greater personal and professional respect than Rep. Alyce Griffin Clarke, the Democrat from Jackson who represents District 69 in Hinds County. A home economist and nutritionist by education, the Yazoo City native is a 1961 graduate of Alcorn State University.
The first African American woman to serve in the Mississippi Legislature, Mrs. Clarke’s tenure in the Mississippi House began in 1985 and her committee assignments are those befitting a House member with 33 years of experience. She’s a vice chairman of the Drug Policy Committee and holds seats on the Appropriations, Banking and Financial Services, Education, Universities and Colleges, and Youth and Family Affairs committees.
The Mississippi Lottery Act is not the first state law named in Clarke’s honor. Her longtime support of the concept of drug courts in the state led to that law being named The Alyce Griffin Clarke Act as well.
For most of her tenure in public office, Clarke has been living with Multiple Sclerosis. She has relied on a cane for a number of years as she gracefully walked the marbled halls of the State Capitol Building. Her physical challenges never impacted her keen intellect or the grace and dignity of her legislative service.
Over the course of my own interactions with the Legislature as a reporter, I’ve seen instances of racism, sexism, and chauvinism, but Clarke’s determined and dignified nature and her polite toughness – think velvet glove over a steely hand – allowed her to overcome most of that nonsense. Powerful men, even those in the opposing party, respect “Miss Alyce” because she quietly but surely demands it.
But Gov. Bryant and the legislative leadership didn’t name the lottery bill after Clarke because they felt sorry for her afflictions or because of her advancing age. Rep. Clarke has for almost two decades persistently introduced legislation to bring the lottery to Mississippi only to see the bill killed in the committee system by the influence of the strange political bedfellows who team up to kill it – usually the churches and the casinos.
I cast no stones at the faithful and I understand naked self-interest on the part of the casinos and those who partner with them. It’s like watching a local option liquor election beaten by a coalition of bootleggers and preachers.
Every state in the union sanctions the lotteries except Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah. People in those five states have to drive across state lines to buy lottery tickets. And in the past in Mississippi, people were doing so in droves.
And yes, lotteries are regressive taxes by nature and odds of winning are infinitesimal to the point that lottery ticket buyers are 250 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the Powerball.
Rep. Clarke knows those odds and those facts. She’s a solid Christian woman with the highest moral and ethical values. But she saw the lines of cars taking Mississippi lottery players to Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida to buy lottery tickets and she wondered why a portion of those funds couldn’t stay in Mississippi to fund highways or education or public health or a host of other needs.
Each year when Clarke filed her lottery legislation, legislative colleagues killed it in the name of either protecting the existing casino industry or protecting us from ourselves in terms of religious and moral concerns. But stubbornly, defiantly, Rep. Clarke came back each year and filed her lottery bill again, and again, and again.
This year, Bryant and key legislators knew that the new sports book in Mississippi casinos would provide political cover for legislators who shared Rep. Clarke’s pro-lottery stance. The majority of Mississippi voters have long expressed their support for the lottery in polling and actually voted for it at the ballot box when afforded the chance.
Rep. Clarke had vision, determination, and most of all, patience. She deserves the honor afforded her for policies that will put new General Fund dollars to work from non-traditional taxation.