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Arkansas' three casinos last month began pouring money into a campaign to defeat a proposed ballot measure that would authorize coin-operated amusement machines in the Natural State.

Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs, Saracen Development Authority in Pine Bluff and the parent company of Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis gave equal amounts -- $133,068 -- in February to Protect Arkansas Communities, the ballot question committee opposing the proposed constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, Arcade Arkansas, the group behind the amusement machine proposal, raised $82,100 in February.

Cumulatively, Arcade Arkansas has raised $442,731 since forming in 2019, according to its financial disclosure form filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Protect Arkansas Communities has raised a total of $400,206, according to its report.

Arcade Arkansas began gathering signatures for its proposed amendment in September. Spokesman Jason Cline said Tuesday that the spread of covid-19 complicated the canvassing campaign.

Asked about February's fundraising, Cline said it's what the group expected.

"We were not surprised by the casinos' involvement," Cline said.

Carlton Saffa, a spokesman for Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, said the state's three casinos had deep roots in the state and a reputation of trust. Arcade Arkansas' proposal, he said, was an attempt to usurp regulators.

Under the proposal, the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery would license amusement machines and operator licenses, capping the number of individual machines in the state at 15,000. The net receipts from the games would be subject to a 20% tax with the revenue going to the lottery.

Lottery Director Bishop Woolsey last month said the lottery opposed the amendment because it would create competition and decrease lottery proceeds -- a projection Arcade Arkansas has disputed.

"The Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, the purported beneficiary of the Arcade Arkansas scheme, openly opposes the ballot initiative," Saffa said. "That alone speaks to the bogus nature of the proposal."

Officials for Southland and Oaklawn couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

About a dozen ballot question committees focused on a variety of issues filed their monthly financial reports with the Ethics Commission prior to Monday's deadline.

Financial reports also were filed by groups supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana and groups on opposing sides of whether a law allowing optometrists to perform a wider range of eye surgeries should be repealed.

Arkansans for Healthy Eyes, the group of optometrists who support the law the General Assembly passed last year, reported no fundraising last month; it has raised $295,626 in total, according to its report.

Safe Surgery Arkansas, the ophthalmologist group backing a proposed referendum to repeal the law, reported raising $28,105 last month, bringing its fundraising total to $787,520.

After a string of litigation, the secretary of state's office certified Safe Surgery's referendum signatures at the end of January.

"With the litigation behind us, we are eager to move forward toward the Nov. 3 general election and expect to build additional support from donors across the state who oppose allowing nonmedical doctors to perform complicated eye surgeries," said Dr. Laurie Barber, chairwoman of Safe Surgery Arkansas, in a statement Tuesday.

A spokesman for Arkansans for Healthy Eyes couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

A group called Vote for Roads. Vote for Issue 1. raised $370,150 in February, bringing its total to more than $1.1 million.

Issue 1 is the proposed constitutional amendment referred to the Nov. 3 general election ballot by the Legislature and supported by the governor that would indefinitely extend Arkansas' 0.5% sales tax for highway maintenance and construction.

Arkansans for Cannabis Reform had its strongest month of fundraising. The group, led by Melissa Fults, is gathering signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

It reported $40,480 in contributions, which Fults said would go toward canvassing and printing signature sheets.

Sponsors of proposed constitutional amendments are required to collect 89,151 signatures of registered voters by July 3 to qualify their measures for the Nov. 3 ballot, according to the Arkansas secretary of state's office.

Fults said the contributions came from an individual who left his estate to marijuana activists groups. Once the estate's assets are sold, Fults said the contribution should total about $125,000.

"It's a huge help for us," she said.

Arkansas True Grass, the other group circulating petitions to legalize cannabis for recreational use, didn't file a report on Monday, according to the Ethics Commission's website.

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 03/18/2020

Print Headline: Casinos back action to end ballot

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