The state Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday balked at signing off on the ballot title's language for a proposed constitutional amendment that would authorize 16 more casinos in Arkansas.
In a 5-1 vote, the board declined to certify the proposed ballot title for the Arkansas Wins in 2020 committee's proposed constitutional amendment. Board members Sharon Brooks, Bilenda Harris-Ritter, William Luther, Charles Roberts and James Sharp voted for Harris-Ritter's motion not to certify the ballot title, while board member James Harmon Smith dissented.
Harris-Ritter told her fellow board members that she made her motion based on the length of the ballot title; the names of the limited liability companies that would be granted casino licenses being misleading; the explanation of the tax on casinos being complicated; and "the potential for perpetuity" of the licenses.
Then, Todd Wooten, an attorney for the Arkansas Wins in 2020 committee, said, "I would like to address the commission."
But Harris-Ritter said, "There is a motion on the floor.
"I said earlier they could [speak to the board]. I didn't think they were going to because they didn't come up here then," she said.
Acting board chairman Kevin Niehaus -- filling in for Republican Secretary of State John Thurston -- said, "I think because there is a motion on the floor we have to vote."
The board voted without hearing from Wooten.
Then, Tom Demont of Siloam Springs, treasurer for the Arkansas Wins committee, told the board, "I wish that we could have been afforded the opportunity to communicate, to speak, to at least present facts in being able to talk about what this [proposal] is.
"The problem is whether we like something or don't like something, we are relying on a process in order to finish it out," he said.
"I appreciate what you are doing. I know that you all are trying to do it to the very best of your ability. It's frustrating personally, but I understand. I just wish that we could have done this is in a little different way and I ask you all ... to consider for the future how you are doing things. You are going to have problems that somebody else made for you, but you all are going to have to solve problems that you didn't create," Demont said.
Last week, attorney Steve Lancaster, representing the Protect Arkansas Communities committee, which opposes the casino proposal, told the board that its ballot title and popular name were misleading.
The proposed amendment would created perpetual licenses for limited liability companies that are identified in this amendment, he said.
But attorney Randy Bynum, representing Arkansas Wins in 2020, told the board last week that the Arkansas Racing Commission has the power to issue regulations and the Legislature has the right to make laws under the proposed amendment, and it's not true that the casinos could never lose their licenses.
Both committees provided letters to the board explaining their views on the proposal.
SUPREME COURT APPEAL
After Wednesday's meeting, Taylor Riddle, a spokesman for the Arkansas Wins committee, said the committee will appeal the board's ruling to the state Supreme Court.
It would be the second appeal to the high court regarding the proposal.
The committee on Friday appealed Thurston's ruling declaring signature petitions insufficient to place the proposal on the Nov. 3 ballot.
On July 14, Thurston ruled that the committee's petitions were insufficient because of an error regarding criminal background checks. Thurston has cited similar problems with background checks in his decision to block three other groups that had proposals for the ballot.
At the outset of the board's discussion Wednesday, Harris-Ritter said she is concerned about the length of the ballot title for the casino proposal because it takes about four minutes to read it very quickly without the time for reflection.
A voter has 10 minutes total to be in the voting booth.
"I think people will rush through it, and that concerns me," she said.
Harris-Ritter also is concerned that the names of the limited liability companies that would be granted licenses could be misleading and may not correspond with actual locations.
"They don't provide a hint of insight into the actual ownership," Harris-Ritter said.
AMENDMENT 100 COMPARISON
The explanation of the proposed tax on casinos is more complicated than the process explained in Amendment 100, she said.
Constitutional Amendment 100, approved by voters in November 2018, authorized up to four casinos in Arkansas. Two were expansions of existing gambling facilities at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis. It also allowed new casinos in Jefferson County and Pope County. The Jefferson County casino is under construction. The Pope County license has yet to be awarded.
"I also believe that there is a concern over the perpetuity [of the casino licenses]," she said. "I think this is different than Amendment 100, and I don't think that it is set out appropriately to say that there is a perpetuity or isn't a perpetuity, and what concerns me is that the letter that the proponents gave us said that the ballot title cannot be misleading because the casino license is authorized by the casino amendment and not necessarily perpetual.
"Even though there is no requirement for renewal and the proponents say the license can be transferred, there is nothing to address the situation where it must be transferred, and I didn't see anything about a provision for the termination of it," she said.
Sharp and Luther said they had some of the same concerns as Harris-Ritter.
Roberts said his main concerns are about whether the licenses can be transferred and sold.
He also said some of the companies' titles are vague, "so we don't know how many people are in there or not, [and] who's in there.
"Can those 16 float out there until somebody picks one up? Do they have to have a designated spot to build these things?"
The Arkansas Wins in 2020 proposal wouldn't affect the four casinos allowed in Amendment 100. It would authorize licenses in the following counties to these companies:
• Benton County, G-First Ark Gaming.
• Boone County, Boone County Gaming.
• Chicot County, Lake Village Gaming Associates.
• Crittenden County, West Memphis 1 Gaming Associates and West Memphis 2 Gaming Associates.
• Garland County, Garland County Gaming Associates.
• Greene County, ASC Transaction Facility.
• Jefferson County, Pine Bluff Gaming Associates.
• Johnson County, Clarksville Gaming Associates.
• Miller County, Texarkana Gaming Associates.
• Nevada County, Prescott Gaming Associates.
• Pulaski County, Little Rock 1 Gaming Associates and Little Rock 2 Gaming Associates.
• Sebastian County, Fort Smith Gaming Associates.
• St. Francis County, Forrest City Gaming.
• Washington County, Fayetteville Gaming Associates.