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Casino backers turn in 96,170 names

Secretary of state to vet signatures; second proposal’s sponsors miss deadline by Michael R. Wickline | July 7, 2018 at 4:17 a.m. | Updated July 7, 2018 at 4:17 a.m.
Jonas Crank unloads boxes of casino amendment petitions Friday outside the secretary of state’s office.

Proponents of a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize the state to license four casinos said they turned in petitions Friday with more than 96,000 signatures of registered voters.

Arkansas Jobs Coalition ballot committee Chairman Don Tilton signed an affidavit stating the committee turned in 96,170 signatures of registered voters on parts of 15,179 petitions. The petitions filled 46 boxes delivered to the secretary of state's office.

To qualify for the Nov. 6 general election ballot, sponsors of constitutional amendments are required to collect 84,859 valid signatures of registered voters. They also are required to collect a minimum number of signatures in at least 15 counties.

Friday was the deadline for sponsors of ballot measures to turn in their petitions.

Arkansas Jobs Coalition's proposed amendment would require the state Racing Commission to issue licenses for casinos in:

• Pope County, within 2 miles of Russellville.

• Jefferson County, within 2 miles of Pine Bluff.

• Southland Racing Corp., at or adjacent to Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis.

• Oaklawn Jockey Club Inc., at or adjacent to Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs.

State law now permits Oaklawn and Southland to offer so-called electronic games of skill, so the ballot proposal would allow them to expand their gambling operations.

The licensees in Jefferson and Pope counties would be required to pay an application fee, demonstrate experience in casino gambling and submit a letter of support from the county judge or a resolution from the county quorum court and, if the proposed casino would be located in a city, a letter of support from that mayor.

For now, the secretary of state's office must determine if the proposal meets signature requirements.

Amendment 97 allows the sponsor of a proposed ballot measure 30 days to gather more signatures if it has collected at least 75 percent of the number required statewide and 75 percent of the signatures required from at least 15 counties.

Nate Steel, counsel for the Arkansas Jobs Coalition and the Driving Arkansas Forward ballot committees, told reporters, "We feel like it's a high validity rate, at least around close to 80 percent probably, so that ought to be under any test sufficient to qualify at least for the [30-day] cure period, and we're going to continue to get signatures under that theory and go from there."

On May 24, Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge cleared the way for the Arkansas Jobs Coalition to begin collecting signatures by certifying its proposed popular name and ballot title.

Rutledge's action came after the state Supreme Court gave her three days to either approve a proposed initiated act to raise the state's minimum wage or substitute her own language. She had come under increasing criticism for balking at certifying ballot language that citizen groups submitted to her office.

Steel said Friday that having only a short period of time to collect signatures increased the committee's number of paid canvassers to about 200 and substantially increased costs. That will be reflected on the committee's finance report submitted July 15 to the state Ethics Commission.

He said campaign contributors so far include the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, the Cherokee Tribe of Oklahoma, a few gambling associations and at least another potential casino applicant.

"The groups that are funding this have no guarantee to anything," he said. Steel said the casino selection "will be a merit-based process" run by the Racing Commission, and applicants would have to be invited into Jefferson and Pope counties.

Tilton, who chairs the Arkansas Jobs Coalition and Driving Arkansas Forward committees, also is a lobbyist. His clients include the Quapaw Tribe, which is interested in participating in the potential casino in Jefferson County.

A spokesman for Oaklawn could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon about the proposed constitutional amendment.

A spokesman for Southland's parent company, Delaware North, said, "Right now, we are just monitoring."

"We're always expecting a challenge" to the proposed amendment if it qualifies for the ballot, Steel said.

"Everything that we do through this process is geared toward making sure that we do everything by the book. My instructions as one of the authors of this amendment were to make this a clear, clean and transparent amendment that doesn't have any strings attached to it, any trap doors," he said.

Family Council President Jerry Cox, who is a gambling foe, said, "If we were to see something that is glaringly wrong with the amendment, I wouldn't rule out a legal challenge.

"But I haven't even read the measure thoroughly yet," Cox said in an interview.

"Make no mistake, they are not doing these casinos for the benefit of the people of Arkansas and they are not doing them so that we can have more tax dollars. They are doing it so they can make more money and there is a lot of money to be made in casinos," Cox said.

Steel said it's projected the proposed amendment would raise about $120 million a year in net casino gambling receipts tax revenues. A casino's net gambling receipts would be subject to a tax of 13 percent on the first $150 million and 20 percent of receipts above that amount under the proposed amendment.

Fifty-five percent of the tax receipts would go to the state general revenue fund and 17.5 percent to the Racing Commission for purses for live horse and greyhound racing. Eight percent of the receipts would go to the county in which the casino is located and 19.5 percent would go to the city or town where the casino sits, or the county if the casino is not in a city or town. If approved by voters, the proposed amendment would become effective on or after Nov. 14.

Sponsors of a separate proposed constitutional amendment to authorize four casinos in Benton, Boone, Miller and Pulaski counties didn't turn in signatures by Friday's deadline. Randy Bynum, an attorney for the Arkansas Wins in 2018 Inc. committee, said, "Our client does not wish to give a statement."

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