After having its proposed ballot wording for a state constitutional amendment denied four times by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, the group pushing a proposal on casino gambling in Arkansas appealed to the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
If adopted, the proposed amendment floated by the group Driving Arkansas Forward would allow the creation of four casinos: one each near racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis -- where "electronic games of skill" are currently allowed -- as well as new stand-alone casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties. The tax revenue drawn from the gambling would go to fund highway projects, hence the group's name.
But before the proposal can go before voters, it must survive a number of steps, starting with clearance by the attorney general's office.
Under state law, Rutledge has the task of certifying that any ballot proposals put before voters are not ambiguous or misleading.
On Monday, Rutledge, for the fourth time, found fault with the Driving Arkansas Forward casino amendment, citing ambiguities in the text. If she had approved it, the group could then begin collecting the 84,859 valid signatures of voters needed to get the measure on the ballot.
On Tuesday afternoon, attorneys who are behind the Driving Arkansas Forward group responded with a lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to intervene.
"The law provides a means of recourse in a situation like this," said a statement by Don Tilton, a lobbyist and chairman of the group's ballot question committee. "This is not hostile toward the Attorney General. Petitioning the Supreme Court is simply the next step for us to take."
The lawsuit faults Rutledge for labeling as misleading a proposed description of the amendment, even though the group contends Rutledge had understood their proposal correctly. Rutledge had rejected the description -- known as a ballot title -- in part because she said it appeared to incorrectly imply that two of the casinos would operate near the Oaklawn and Southland racetracks. Attorneys for the group said that was in fact the case.
All together, Rutledge found four different problems with the wording that caused her to reject the proposal, though she noted that those "are not necessarily all the ambiguities contained in your proposal."
Writing in the lawsuit, the group's attorney, Alex Gray, called Rutledge's "strained reading" of the ballot title "a clear abuse of her duties."
In a statement issued by a spokesman, Rutledge defended her review of ballot proposals.
"In recent years, the Arkansas Supreme Court has set a very high standard for certifying a ballot proposal," Rutledge said. "As Attorney General, I have a responsibility to follow those standards to ensure that voters fully understand the issue presented on the ballot and what exactly a 'for' or 'against' vote means."
The lawsuit was prepared by Gray and two other members of his law firm: state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, and former state Rep. Nate Steel, D-Nashville.
Hutchinson, who is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, called Rutledge's exacting reviews an "overreaction" to decisions in 2016, when the state Supreme Court disqualified three ballot measures in the lead-up to the November election. He said he did not think it had anything to do with Rutledge's views on casino gambling.
"I don't think it's policy driven. I do believe she saw the Supreme Court reject three amendments last cycle and she's trying to adopt the Supreme Court's standards," Jeremy Hutchinson said*. (Measures placed on the ballot by the Legislature do not need the attorney general's review.)
"There's some really well-done amendments that have been rejected," Jeremy Hutchinson said.
Among those rejected proposals is a rival casino amendment put forward by a group calling itself Arkansas Wins 2018. Up to four casinos under that amendment would be authorized at specific locations in Benton, Boone, Miller and Pulaski counties.
Members of the Driving Arkansas Forward ballot question committee include John Berrey, the chairman of the Quapaw tribe; professional golfer John Daly; and local and business officials from Pope and Jefferson counties.
Berrey previously told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the Quapaw tribe would apply for a casino license in Jefferson County if the proposal is approved and invest $300 million in a hotel and casino.
Across the four casinos, backers of the proposal estimate that it could raise $45 million annually in gambling tax revenue for the Department of Transportation.
Metro on 04/18/2018
*CORRECTION: Attorney General Leslie Rutledge certified the name and ballot title of a proposed state constitutional amendment on term limits in October 2016, and supporters are still circulating petitions in hopes of having the measure placed on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. A previous version of this story inaccurately said Rutledge has not approved any proposals for the 2018 ballot. However, the term limits amendment, and possibly other proposals approved before the 2016 election, are still eligible for the 2018 ballot. Her office did not know if other certified proposals were still being circulated.