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Arkansas ballot to include casino proposal

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Arkansas voters could decide in November whether to allow a limited number of casinos to operate in Arkansas, unless history repeats itself.

Back in 2010, professional poker player Nancy Todd was successful in securing a spot on the Arkansas ballot for a proposed constitutional amendment to allow casinos to operate in four Arkansas counties. A group funded by Hot Springs racetrack Oaklawn Racing and Gaming filed a lawsuit challenging the measure, and the state Supreme Court ruled that no votes cast for the ballot issue could be counted.

The state’s top court said then that Todd had changed the wording of the measure after gathering signatures for it – something Todd said she had done to address a concern raised by then – Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

Todd is not involved in Issue 5 on this year’s general election ballot, a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow one casino each to operate in Washington, Boone and Miller counties.

But Oaklawn – along with West Memphis racetrack Southland Park Gaming and Racing – is again funding a group that opposes allowing casinos into Arkansas, and that group has filed a legal challenge to the current proposal.

The group, Protect Arkansas Values – Stop Casinos Now, alleges that the ballot title is misleading and does not adequately explain the measure and that supporters did not follow all state laws governing the use of paid canvassers. The measure’s sponsors have denied the allegations.

The Proposal

The Arkansas Constitution prohibits gambling houses and devices, but a state law allows Oaklawn and Southland to operate electronic “games of skill” with the approval of the local communities.

If Issue 5 stays on the ballot and is approved by voters, it would amend the constitution to allow limited liability companies to operate the three casinos in the state. Arkansas Wins in 2016, the group sponsoring the proposal, has said Cherokee Nation Entertainment, which owns and operates nine casinos in Oklahoma and is building a 10th, has agree to operate the casino in Washington County if voters approve the measure.

The casinos would all be in counties that border states where casino gambling is available – Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri. Supporters say allowing casinos to operate in the counties would mean some of the gambling dollars Arkansans spend in other states would be spent in Arkansas.

The measure would create a five-member state gaming commission, with all five members appointed by the governor, to regulate the casinos. Each casino would pay taxes on net gaming receipts of 18 percent to the state, 0.5 percent to the county and 1.5 percent to the city.

Any types of gambling permitted at casinos in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada , Oklahoma, Tennessee, or Texas would be allowed.

The casinos would be permitted to be in operation 24/7 and to sell complimentary alcoholic beverages during all hours of operation.

The Arguments

In addition to the racetracks, a wide array of groups and elected officials is opposing the measure, including Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, a bipartisan group of more then 50 state legislators, the Christian conservative Family Council Action Committee and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce.

Chuck Lange, chairman of Protect Arkansas Values – Stop Casinos Now, has said the measure is backed by “shadowy, out-of-state characters” and the operation of the casinos could be assigned to any companies or individuals.

Robert Coon, spokesman for Arkansas Wins in 2016, the group sponsoring the measure, has said the group is open about the fact its members include business people from Arkansas and Missouri, including businessmen Jim THompson of Blue Eye, Mo., and Bob Womack of Branson, mo. He has said control of the casinos would to to reputable established businesses.

Some opponents have said the measure would write into the constitution a casino monopoly and deny local control to the communities where the casinos would operate.

“Traditionally, local communities have the right to vote on whether or not they have liquor sales in their community. This amendment would deny our cities, towns, and communities the ability to decide for themselves what kind of community they want to live in,” Beebe said last week.

Beebe now practices with the Roberts Law Firm, which is part of Roberts Group, a conglomerate that also includes a lobbying firm, Roberts GA Strategies, that lobbies for Oaklawn. Beebe’s job does not include legal or lobbying work for Oaklawn.

Coon has said Oakland and Southland currently have a protected gambling monopoly and that they will “stop at nothing” to protect their monopoly. He has said the measure would be good for Arkansas.

“This amendment will create thousands of good-paying jobs, generals tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue, increase tourism and stimulate our state and local economies,” he said earlier this month.

The election will be Nov. 8.