Arkansas Racing Commission OKs proposed revisions to its casino gaming rules

The gaming tables at Saracen Casino Resort are shown in this file photo. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Dale Ellis)
The gaming tables at Saracen Casino Resort are shown in this file photo. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Dale Ellis)

The Arkansas Racing Commission on Tuesday formally authorized proposed revision of its casino gaming rules.

"I think the main thing we are trying to do is get the clearest, widest path for them to take the ball down and get it across the goal line," said Commission Chairman Alex Lieblong of Conway.

The Pope County casino license has been a source of turmoil for the county and the state, resulting in numerous court cases. Billions of dollars are collectively wagered at the state's casinos each year.

Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, approved by voters in November 2018, authorized the Arkansas Racing Commission to license four full-fledged casinos. Three casinos currently operate in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and West Memphis.

The Arkansas Racing Commission's proposed rules changes will require the approval of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders before the commission can begin accepting public comment on the proposals for 30 days and then considers approving the revised rules before presenting them to the Legislative Council for its review. The public comment period will launch with a formal notice in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Lieblong asked for a guess on when the commission will consider approving the revised casino gaming rules. Doralee Chandler, a deputy attorney general overseeing state agencies, speculated the commission will consider approving the revised rules in March, at the end of a 30-day public comment period.

After the Legislative Council reviews the commission's revised casino gaming rules, the commission will need to approve a new application for the Pope County casino license and a new scoring matrix for the applications, and set the dates for the 30-day application period, Chandler told the commission last week. After the application period ends, the commission will review and score applications for the casino license.

Commissioner Steve Anthony of Fordyce said "as we have learned we better be sure that we do it exactly right and don't leave any loophole." He asked how the commissioners' scores of the applications will be compiled to determine one number for each application for the casino license or whether it has to be done that way.

In response, Chandler said "the application scoring process will be something that you all will discuss when we create the matrix and the scoring rubic for that as to how you all want to score with that scoring process"

Under the commission's casino gaming rules, she said "the points shall be totaled for each application and ranked highest total score to lowest total score." Chandler said the "points to be applied to it is something that you can vote on and determine as we set the matrix."

Lieblong said the commissions' scoring of the casino applications "was done poorly the first time." He said he would to like to see an "open and constructive conversation" about the scoring of the applications.

Besides Lieblong and Anthony, the other Arkansas racing commissioners are Mark Lamberth of Batesville, Denny East of Marion, Michael Post of Altus, Bo Hunter of Fort Smith and Steve Landers of Little Rock, according the commission's website.

The commission's current rules state applications for a casino license will be accepted by the commission for 30 days, starting on the date established by the commission, and no applications will be accepted after the 30-day period "except for good cause shown."

Among other things, the proposed revised rules authorized by the commission Tuesday would eliminate the phrase "except for good cause shown" from the rules. The attorney general's office recommended axing that phrase because "this is a clause that is inviting of litigation," Chandler told the commission last week.

The proposed revised rules also would require the commission to open a new application period if no casino license is awarded at the conclusion of the application process. The proposed revised rules also would require the commission to open a new application period if a casino license is not renewed by a casino licensee, is surrendered by the casino licensee, revoked by the commission or voided by a court.

After the commission's meeting, Cherokee Nation Businesses Chief Executive Officer Chuck Garrett said Tuesday in a written statement that "We appreciate the diligent efforts being made by the Arkansas Racing Commission and the Arkansas Attorney General's office to ensure the administrative process is carried out properly and expeditiously.

"Our proposed Legends Resort & Casino, which has the express and exclusive support of elected officials in Pope County, represents a more than $300 million investment that will provide a welcomed economic anchor for Pope County, the River Valley and the state of Arkansas," Garrett said. "Our world-class entertainment destination will bring visitors from across the country to Arkansas and provide more than $5 billion in economic impact over the first 10 years."

Casey Castleberry, counsel for the Gulfside Casino Partnership, said Tuesday in a written statement that "We appreciate the Arkansas Racing Commission's diligent efforts to approve new rules that will guide its consideration of Pope County casino license applications.

"The approved rules will now proceed through the promulgation process required before agency rules go into effect," he said. "While that process runs its course, we look forward to demonstrating soon to the Pope County Quorum Court why Gulfside is worthy of the county's support."

On Jan. 11, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied a petition from Legends Resort and Casino and Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses seeking a rehearing in the case in which the court ruled the Arkansas Racing Commission's award of the Pope County casino license to the consortium violated Amendment 100.

In a 5-2 ruling Oct. 26, the state's Supreme Court affirmed a ruling by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued in January 2023. Fox ruled the Arkansas Racing Commission erred by awarding the license to two entities when the Arkansas Constitution states that only a single entity can hold a casino license, and that Legends does not meet licensing requirements written into the Arkansas Constitution because the company has no prior casino experience. The Cherokee/Legends consortium appealed Fox's ruling to the state Supreme Court.

In November 2021, a divided Arkansas Racing Commission issued the Pope County casino license to the Legends/Cherokee consortium after it nullified the license that it awarded in 2020 to the Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership. Gulfside challenged the commission's decision, asking Fox to void the license to the consortium.

The commission's award of the casino license to the consortium came after the state Supreme Court in October 2021 reversed Fox's ruling that declared unconstitutional a commission rule and state law that required that letters of endorsement for casino licenses come from local officials in office at the time the license application is submitted. Gulfside's letter of support was signed by former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson, just days before his term expired Dec. 31, 2018.

On Jan. 11, the Arkansans for Local Voices ballot committee filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission that states the committee will advocate for a proposed constitutional amendment for the 2024 general election ballot to repeal the authorization for a casino in Pope County and "to require a local option vote for any future potential casino locations."

In August 2022, the Fair Play for Arkansas committee narrowly failed to submit enough signatures to get a similar proposal on the 2022 general election ballot, Republican Secretary of State John Thurston said at that time. The Choctaw Nation helped finance the committee.

The Arkansas Attorney General's office hasn't received a proposed constitutional amendment and proposed ballot language related to Pope County casino license "as of yet," Jeff LeMaster, a spokesman for Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin, said late Tuesday afternoon.

If the attorney general certifies proposed ballot language for a proposed constitutional amendment, it clears the way for ballot committees promoting the proposed constitutional amendment to begin collecting signatures of registered voters.

Ballot committees are required to turn in 90,704 signatures of registered voters in Arkansas, including signatures from 50 counties, to the secretary of state's office by July 5 to qualify their proposed constitutional amendment for the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

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