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Pope County casino opponents fail to submit enough signatures for extension; measure would have removed area as site

by Michael R. Wickline | August 9, 2022 at 7:21 a.m.
A roulette wheel spins in 2018 at Cherokee Casino & Hotel in West Siloam Springs, Okla. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

The committee promoting a proposed ballot measure aimed at axing Pope County as a state-licensed casino site failed to submit enough signatures of registered voters to get 30 more days to collect additional signatures to qualify their proposal for the Nov. 8 ballot, Secretary of State John Thurston said Monday.

A ballot committee is required to submit 89,151 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify its proposed constitutional amendment for the Nov. 8 ballot.

About a month ago, the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee said it turned in 103,096 signatures to the secretary of state's office.

Arkansas state law allows for "a cure period," where correction or amendment to a sponsor's petition is permitted if the petition contains valid signatures of registered voters equal to at least 75% of the number of statewide signatures required and at least 75% of the required number of signatures of registered voters from at least 15 counties of the state, Thurston said in a letter dated Monday to James Knight of the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee.

He said the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee needed to submit 66,864 valid signatures of registered voters to qualify for the cure period to collect more signatures, but his office verified no less than 62,859 registered voters.

Thus, the committee's petition is deemed insufficient and does not qualify for correction or amendment, the Republican secretary of state said

The Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 committee will review the information from the secretary of state to make a determination regarding any further efforts toward the November ballot, committee spokesman Hans Stiritz said Monday.

The secretary of state's certification that the sponsor submitted the required number of valid signatures of registered voters on a petition is one of two requirements to qualify a proposed ballot measure for the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The other requirement to qualify a proposed ballot measure for the ballot is that the state Board of Election Commissioners must certify a proposed ballot measure's popular name and ballot title under state law.

The state Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday declined to certify the ballot title for the proposed constitutional amendment aimed at removing Pope County as a state-licensed casino site, saying it lacked a reference to the existing license held by Cherokee Nation Businesses for the casino site. Stiritz has said the group was disappointed in the board's ruling and would review its options.

Regarding Thurston's ruling Monday, Stiritz said in a written statement that "We're grateful for the diligent efforts of our canvassing team in spite of extreme opposition from the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, including possible criminal activity currently under investigation

"Our canvassers faced assault, physical intimidation, harassment and other threats against their effort to legally gather signatures," he said.

Stiritz said the legitimacy of the effort to place a casino in Pope County continues to be in question.

"Amendment 100 put in place a process ripe for corruption and self-dealing that demands further official investigation," he said. "Unfortunately Pope County voters still have not been given a means to determine for themselves whether a casino should be allowed in their own community."

David Couch, an attorney for Cherokee Nation Businesses and the Arkansas Tourism Alliance that opposes Fair Play for Arkansas 2022's proposed constitutional amendment, said Monday that for the first time in Arkansas history, voters were well-informed on the ballot initiative and its effects before being approached by canvassers.

"Our grassroots and digital voter education efforts led many to decline to sign Fair Play's petition, ultimately resulting in its failure to get the measure on the ballot," he said in a written statement.

Couch said "I commend the Secretary of State, as Chair of the Board of Election Commissioners, and his staff for reviewing petitions every two years to ensure Arkansas voters are protected.

"We are confident in the integrity and legality of the voter education campaign put forth by the Arkansas Tourism Alliance," he said.

Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution -- approved by voters in November 2018 -- authorizes the state Racing Commission to issue four casino licenses.

The licenses are authorized for expanding gambling operations at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, and for casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties with the endorsement of local officials.

Casinos are currently operating in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis.

In November, the Pope County casino license was handed to Cherokee Nation Businesses to build Legends Resort & Casino after the Arkansas Racing Commission ruled to nullify the license previously awarded to Gulfside Casino Partnership. The Pope County casino license has long been a source of turmoil for the county and the state, resulting in numerous court cases.

Through the end of June, the Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 ballot committee reported raising $3.3 million in contributions, largely from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and spending $2.8 million, leaving a balance of $525,609.01.

Through the end of June, the Arkansas Tourism Alliance ballot committee reported raising $1.3 million, largely from the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses, and spending $1.2 million, leaving a balance of $30,754.10.

Chuck Garrett, chief executive officer for Cherokee Nation Businesses, said Monday that strong progress continues to be made on Cherokee Nation Businesses' plans for the first-class Legends Resort & Casino, including the acquisition of more than 180 acres of land.

"We look forward to making some big project announcements in the coming months, including our Arkansas-based construction manager and architect," he said in a written statement.

"We expect pending litigation to be resolved expeditiously and look forward to starting construction so that Pope County and the state of Arkansas can begin experiencing the economic benefits of our project," Garrett said.

Thurston has certified that the Responsible Growth Arkansas committee submitted enough signatures to qualify its proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize recreational marijuana for the Nov. 8 ballot.

But the state Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday voted not to certify the popular name and ballot title for the constitutional amendment, saying the measure did not clearly specify whether there would be a certain THC limit on edibles.

Officials for the Responsible Growth Arkansas committee on Friday filed an appeal with the Arkansas Supreme Court to overturn the board's ruling.

Three proposed constitutional amendments are already set to be on the Nov. 8 general election ballot after the Republican-dominated Legislature in the 2021 regular session referred three proposals to voters.

One of the proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot is House Joint Resolution 1005 by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, which would require a 60% vote of voters rather than a majority vote for proposed ballot measures.

A second proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot is Senate Joint Resolution 10 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, which would permit the General Assembly to convene in an extraordinary session by a joint written proclamation of the speaker of House and the Senate president pro tempore or by the submission of the signatures of two-thirds of the members of the 35-member Senate and 100-member House of Representatives.

Lawmakers would be required to state the reason for the special session, and once that purpose is accomplished the session could be extended by up to 15 days by a two-thirds majority of both chambers.

Under current law, only the governor can call a special session and the governor sets the agenda for the session.

The third proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot is Senate Joint Resolution 14 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which would prohibit the government from burdening a person's freedom of religion unless the government can demonstrate that it furthers a compelling government interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.


Print Headline: Foes of Pope County casino are dealt blow over signatures

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