A proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize four casinos in Arkansas will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot, the secretary of state's office determined Wednesday.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he opposes the proposed amendment.
Leslie Bellamy, elections director in the secretary of state's office, said the measure's sponsors turned in 99,988 valid signatures of registered voters. Proposed amendments require 84,859 signatures to qualify for the ballot. The measure will be Issue 4.
The proposal would allow the state Racing Commission to issue casino licenses to: an applicant in Jefferson County within 2 miles of Pine Bluff; an applicant in Pope County within 2 miles of Russellville; Southland Racing Corp. at or adjacent to Southland Gaming and Racing in West Memphis; and Oaklawn Jockey Club at or adjacent to Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs.
Under current state law, Oaklawn and Southland operate electronic games of skill, so the measure would allow for expansion of their gambling operations, including sports betting.
Oaklawn Jockey Club is taking no position on the proposal and will make no further comments about it, said Oaklawn spokesman Jennifer Hoyt. A spokesman for Southland's parent company, Delaware North, could not be reached for comment by telephone Wednesday.
Nate Steel, counsel for the Driving Arkansas Forward and Arkansas Jobs Coalition committees that are promoting the proposal, said, "This amendment is the state's best opportunity to create a transparent and equitable gaming structure free from all the pitfalls and drawbacks of casino measures in the past.
"History tells us that we'll keep seeing legally defective proposals from out-of-state special interests over and over again unless we act now to establish a fair model to provide entertainment opportunities in four distinct regions of Arkansas and create additional revenue to pay for our most important needs," Steel said in a written statement.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council Action committee that opposes the proposal, said in an interview that Steel's comment was "a ridiculous statement."
He said most of the funding to promote the amendment has been from two out-of-state tribes -- the Cherokee and Quapaw tribes. The Quapaw Tribe has expressed interest in applying for a casino license in Jefferson County, and the Cherokee Nation is interested in the Pope County casino.
"For them to indicate all this is homegrown is absolutely false," Cox said.
"Perhaps someone should tell the nearly 100,000 Arkansans that signed our petition that this effort wasn't homegrown," Steel said in an email. "I would also note that the Quapaw Tribe was here long before any of us."
The Driving Arkansas Forward and Arkansas Jobs Coalition committees are chaired by lobbyist Don Tilton, whose clients include the Quapaw Tribe.
Through July 31, the Driving Arkansas Forward committee reported a total of $2.26 million in contributions, including $1.2 million from the Downstream Development Authority of the Quapaw Tribe in Quapaw, Okla., and $1.05 million from Cherokee Nation Businesses LLC of Catoosa, Okla.
Cox said he has talked with Larry Page, Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council director, and Stephen Copley, a pastor, about the possibility of a legal challenge to the proposal's ballot title and popular name, which appear on the ballot.
"We believe a challenge to the popular name and ballot title would be a futile effort," Steel said.
"We're confident that the attorney general and her staff did their job thoroughly and correctly," said Steel, a former Democratic state representative from Nashville who lost his 2014 bid for attorney general to Republican Leslie Rutledge.
Under the proposal, a licensee in Jefferson or Pope counties would be required 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. If the proposed casino would be located in a city, the licensee would also need a letter of support from that city's mayor.
In the Nov. 6 general election, Pope County voters will cast ballots on a proposed initiative that would bar the county judge or the Quorum Court from supporting a casino there without a local election granting authority for such action.
Under Issue 4, a casino's net gambling receipts would be taxed at 13 percent on the first $150 million and 20 percent on receipts above that amount. Fifty-five percent would go to state general revenue and 17.5 percent to the state 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 in which the casino sits -- or to the county, if the casino is not in a city or a town.
The sponsors have estimated the casinos would initially raise about $66 million a year for the state, about $33 million a year for the cities and counties where the casinos are located and about $25 million a year for purse support at Oaklawn and Southland.
They've disputed projections by state Department of Finance and Administration officials that the state actually would receive less during fiscal years 2020-22. The state collected $64.3 million from Oaklawn's and Southland's electronic games of skill in fiscal 2018, which ended June 30.
The state Highway Commission warned last week that "citizens need to understand that the proposal does not direct any of the revenue to be generated from the casinos to our state's highways, despite what some of the promotional ads are implying."
Steel countered that Driving Arkansas Forward's "advertisements cite facts and make clear these additional tax revenues could be used for roads and highways, and it is the organization's primary goal to make sure our policymakers dedicate more money for highways."
The committee's website, drivingarkansasforward.com, has several photos, including one of a pothole. The wording on it states: "Better Roads" and "Provides additional revenue to fund improvements to our roads."
One of the videos on the website focuses on roads and how much Issue 4 is projected to raise. One of the phrases in the video refers to "money coming into Arkansas to fix roads."
The original version of the proposal would have given 65 percent of the revenue to the state Department of Transportation, which is overseen by the Highway Commission.
At a news conference at the state Capitol, Hutchinson said, "Let me emphasize that on these amendments, I have to vote just like everybody else, but it's ultimately up to the people to decide 'yea' or 'nay' on those.
"I will vote 'no' on the casino amendment because I have always opposed the expansion of casino gambling in Arkansas," said the Republican governor from Rogers. "I will make that position clear today. Others will have to wait for a time."
Hutchinson has repeatedly said he wants the Legislature in the 2019 regular session to refer to voters a long-term highway funding measure.
A short time later, at a news conference at his campaign headquarters, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jared Henderson of Little Rock said he wants to study Issue 4 more closely and consult others before taking a stance.
"This is one of the issues that there are good arguments for and against it," he said. "This could provide some deeply needed resources to some communities that are really hurting for them, but we also know that casinos can come with really negative externalities as well."
Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Mark West of Batesville said he will vote against Issue 4.
A proposed constitutional amendment authorizing casinos in Arkansas was last on the ballot in 2000.
More than 309,000 voters supported the proposed Amendment 5, while more than 544,000 voted against it, according to the secretary of state's website. The proposed amendment would have granted Arkansas Casino Corp. the sole right to put casinos in six counties, establish a statewide lottery and legalize charitable bingo.
In 2006, voters approved Amendment 84 authorizing raffles and bingo games run by charities, religious organizations and other nonprofit groups. In 2008, they approved Amendment 87, which authorized the Legislature to create a state lottery to pay for college scholarships.
In October 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled that the ballot title was insufficient for a proposed amendment promoted by the Arkansas Wins in 2016 and Arkansas Winning Initiative ballot committees because it failed to inform voters that federal law at the time prohibited Arkansas and other states from authorizing sports gambling. That amendment would have authorized casinos in three counties. The casinos would have been controlled by limited liability companies owned by two Missouri businessmen.
Other measures approved for the 2018 general election ballot are:
• Issue 1, which would limit attorneys' contingency fees; limit noneconomic damages to $500,000; cap punitive damages, with certain exceptions, to the greater of either $500,000 or three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded; and allow the Legislature to amend and repeal the state Supreme Court's rules.
• Issue 2, which would require the General Assembly to enact a law requiring voters to present valid photo identification before they receive ballots at the polls. Those voting by absentee ballot would have to enclose copies of their ID.
• Issue 3, which would limit state representatives to three two-year terms and senators to two four-year terms and all lawmakers to serving a maximum of 10 years.
Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, approved in 2014, allows lawmakers to serve up to 16 years. Senators, who draw two-year terms after once-a-decade redistricting, are allowed to go beyond the 16-year limit.
• Issue 5, which would gradually increase the state's minimum wage by $2.50 per hour to $11 per hour.
Information for this article was contributed by Hunter Field of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
A Section on 09/06/2018
Print Headline: Casino measure OK'd for November ballot; Arkansas governor says he’ll vote ‘no’