Low Salary Tough on Mississippi Gaming Commission Investigators

BILOXI -- Agents with the Mississippi Gaming Commission, who make sure the bets are fair at state casinos, make an average salary of just $27,852 unless they serve in a supervisory capacity.

"It's hard to fill the positions on the front end and it's hard to retain them once they get trained," said J. Ledbetter, the agency's chief of enforcement.

Although the turnover rate is relatively low for the commission's senior staff, newly hired agents are often lured away by other law enforcement agencies that pay more. The state has 37 agents assigned to the state's 29 casinos, a ratio of 1.3 per casino.

Larry Gregory, executive director of the Gaming Commission, said the staff is adequate for now but he will need more agents in the next couple of years as new casino resorts open for business. The state could have three new casinos by the end of 2006, he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind with these new projects coming online and their number, their complexity and with the size of the new developments, I will have to have more people to regulate this industry," Gregory said.

The starting pay for a Gaming Commission agent trainee is $24,853.

"I can't blame some of these younger agents that come in and leave us, but 70 percent of our staff has been here," Gregory said. "We see a mission. We want to see it through."

The 10 special enforcement agents in supervisory capacities, the experienced core of the enforcement division, make an average of $35,914 a year.

Experience is crucial for gaming agents to be effective in their jobs, Ledbetter said. It usually takes about three years on the job for an agent to be fully trained, he said.

Federal, city and county law enforcement positions often pay more than the Gaming Commission.

"Once you get somebody trained then they become very attractive for these positions," Ledbetter said. "That's not even talking about the private sector, the jobs in the casinos. An agent can double their salary easily by going into the private sector."

The agency currently has three vacancies for special agents.

July 1, the beginning of the state's fiscal year, the commission eliminated 13 authorized agent positions. The move had no real impact on operations because the positions had never been filled.

However, the Gaming Commission was one of the few state agencies spared from budget cuts by the Legislature. Legislators gave the commission more money for contractual services to outsource the testing of new slot machine technologies. The state's testing lab has been been hard pressed to keep up with the latest innovations and approve new slot games in a timely manner.

"I'm not complaining at all," Gregory said. "I've looked at all the other budgets for state agencies. I am doing extremely well. I think legislators know the importance of this agency and really didn't cut me."

Lawmakers set salary scales for state workers upon the recommendation of the State Personnel Board, and they authorize pay raises. Few raises were given this year when the state faced budget shortfalls.

Rep. Bobby Moak, chairman of the House Gaming Committee, said legislators are attuned to the commission's needs.

"When you have an industry in the state that employs more than 30,000 or 35,000 people at any given time and you are asked to have a regulatory agency look at those folks, you can't do it with a skeleton staff," Moak said. "You've got to make sure that you've got enough staff to do the job. I'm sure that's something we can look at."