Backers of proposal to authorize casinos in 4 Arkansas counties get OK to collect signatures

For the second time in two days, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Thursday cleared the way for a ballot committee with a proposed constitutional amendment to authorize casinos in four counties to begin collecting signatures of registered voters in its effort to qualify the measure for the Nov. 6 ballot.

Rutledge said attorney Alex Gray of the Steel, Wright, Gray & Hutchinson law firm, which represents the Driving Arkansas Forward ballot committee, requested earlier Thursday that she recertify the proposed ballot language to "correct a typographical error and other scrivener's errors that were contained in [Gray's] May 14 submission."

She previously certified Gray's proposed popular name and ballot title Wednesday and "you have not requested any substantive changes be made," she said in her letter to Gray released Thursday afternoon.

"Accordingly, your proposed popular name and ballot title are certified as resubmitted," Rutledge wrote. Prior to Wednesday, she rejected five versions of the committee's proposal.

The popular name and ballot title will appear on the ballot if the committee collects the required 84,859 signatures of registered voters by the July 6 deadline. The committee is chaired by lobbyist Don Tilton, whose clients include the Quapaw tribe that is interested participating in the potential casino in Jefferson County. The proposal also would place casinos in Crittenden, Garland and Pope counties.

Besides certifying the ballot language for the Driving Arkansas Forward proposal on Wednesday, Rutledge also certified proposed ballot language for the Arkansas Wins in 2018 Inc. committee's proposed amendment to authorize casinos in Benton, Miller, Pulaski and Boone counties.

Also Wednesday, she certified ballot language for attorney David Couch's proposed initiated act to raise the state's minimum wage from $8.50 per hour to $12 and Couch's proposed constitutional amendment to change the redistricting process. Sponsors of proposed initiated acts are required to collect 67,887 signatures of registered voters by July 6 to qualify their measures for the ballot.

Rutledge's action Wednesday came hours after the Arkansas Supreme Court gave her three days to either approve the minimum-wage proposal language or substitute her own language.

She had come under increasing criticism for balking at certifying ballot language that citizen groups submitted to her office. But Rutledge said Wednesday that the state Supreme Court failed to offer any insight for her to use in acting on proposals.

Arkansas Driving Forward's latest proposal would require the Arkansas Racing Commission to issue licenses for four casinos, in Pope and Jefferson counties; one at or adjacent to Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis; and one at or adjacent to Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs.

A casino's net gaming receipts would be subject to a tax of 13 percent on the first $150 million and 20 percent of receipts above that amount. 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 to the county if the casino is not in a city or town.

The committee's previous proposals would give a majority of the net casino gaming receipts to the state Transportation Department.

"While we had hoped to provide voters with a measure that would permanently dedicate a funding stream for our state's highways, the Attorney General determined that the language in that proposal was too complicated," committee spokesman Aaron Sadler said Thursday.

"The Attorney General instead chose to certify the measure directing revenue to the General Fund. Because of the pending deadlines, we will pursue signatures for that measure and look to the Legislature to direct the money to highways," Sadler said.

He said the committee estimates the proposal would raise about $66 million a year for the state and about $33 million a year for the local government jurisdictions where the casinos are.

The other casino proposal, by Arkansas Wins in 2018 Inc., would create the five-member Arkansas Gaming Commission, appointed by the governor.

Each of the four casinos created by that amendment would pay the state 18 percent of its annual net gaming receipts; 1.5 percent to the city or town where the casino sits, and 0.5 percent to the county. Like its competitor, the proposal also was changed from the earlier version that would direct state taxes to highways.

Asked the reason for the change, attorney Todd Wooten said, "Revisions were made to provide the best chance for passage and to give the state of Arkansas flexibility in utilizing the new revenue."

He said he would later provide an estimate of how much revenue would be raised.

Attorneys who drafted the Driving Arkansas Forward casino amendment appeared Thursday morning in the Little Rock courtroom of U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker just long enough to formally ask that their lawsuit over the attorney general's approval process be dismissed without* prejudice -- meaning it can be filed again if circumstances change. Baker, who was alerted Wednesday afternoon that the issue appeared to be resolved and a hearing was no longer necessarily, immediately granted the request.

Outside the courthouse, attorney Gray told reporters, "Arkansans deserve the right to at least vote on whether they want casinos in the state."

Information for this article was contributed by Linda Satter of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 05/25/2018

*CORRECTION: Attorneys who filed a federal court lawsuit over Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s approval process on initiated proposals asked that the suit be dismissed without prejudice — meaning it can be filed again if circumstances change. A previous version of this article used the incorrect legal term.