A group hoping to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to
A significant change seems to have brought support from the existing casino duopoly at Southland Park in West Memphis and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who reviews the popular name and ballot title of referred laws and amendments, rejected the first try.
The first proposal called for casinos in Jefferson and Crittenden counties and then one more from Miller, Mississippi, Pope, Union or White County.
The proposal now calls for one casino each in Jefferson and Pope Counties and then casinos “at or adjacent to” the existing racetrack casinos at Southland in West Memphis and Oaklawn in Hot Springs, with the permits specifically allocated to the corporations currently operating those casinos. In other words, local casino monopolies in Hot Springs and West Memphis would be written into the Arkansas Constitution for the two racetracks, which could have two casinos in each place. The casinos in Pope and Jefferson County would have to be within two miles of Russellville and Pine Bluff, respectively.
The amendment would end, at least at the new casinos, the sham “electronic games of skill” artifice by which Southland and Oaklawn added slot machines and electronic forms of standard casino games such as roulette and craps. No one challenged the proposition that these were “games of skill” as opposed to unconstitutional lotteries.
The amendment also would allow sports books at the casinos, subject to a change in federal law. It also would require successful applicants to have casino operation experience.
Oaklawn and Southland had been silent on this idea though there was a presumption that Oaklawn particularly might resist new competition. It is a stout supporter of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce which has taken a number of steps to prevent the Quapaw Tribe from opening a casino on tribal land it purchased near the Little Rock Port. Southland was in a different position. It has a legal casino only because it has parimutuel wagering on greyhound racing, a rapidly dying sport. The Southland casino has flourished. Dog racing is a marginal part of the operation. Together, the two existing casinos are taking in about $5 billion in wagering annually. Most of that is paid back to gamblers. 18 percent of net revenues are paid in state taxes, about $60 million for fiscal 2017.
The new proposal provides purse support for horse and greyhound racing at the tracks.
The news release says the amendment will enhance existing casinos and build bigger tourist attractions to compete with those in neighboring states.
“We have all witnessed in the past, election cycle after cycle, individuals and groups trying to do this the wrong way, “ said Nate Steel, counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward. “This time, it’s different because of the fact that we have amended our proposal based on the attorney general’s feedback and resubmitted a fair and reasonable ballot measure. This allows the voters of Arkansas to expand the gaming industry in a smart and controlled manner by establishing a pathway forward for our state for years to come. In response to the attorney general’s comments, we have identified two specific counties in Arkansas that would be eligible for a casino license. Those licenses would be awarded through a merit-based process.”
In addition, after meetings with interested stakeholders, Driving Arkansas Forward is including expanded gaming at Oaklawn and Southland. The two entities are established, recognized business leaders that have already demonstrated their merit and benefit to the state’s economy.
I have asked for reaction from Southland and Oaklawn. The strong suggestion seems to be that they are on board, particularly a promise that word is coming soon if additional financial supporters on the ballot committee. If the tracks are on board, it means financial support for a necessary petition drive and for passage of the amendment. Oaklawn has fought past casino proposals, except one of its own that failed at the polls. Oaklawn and Southland sued to knock a casino amendment off the ballot in 2016.