RACING COMMISSION: Hears from Butch Reeves (left).

The Arkansas Racing Commission today tabled consideration of the Cherokee Nation’s request for a casino permit in Pope County until a decision is reached in a related court case.

The Cherokee tribe asked the commission to find it had “good cause” not to submit an application valid under commission rules for the 30-day application period that ended in May 2019. The rules required the approval of current local elected officials. At that point, no current elected officials were prepared to give that approval.

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When the first period passed without a valid application, the Racing Commission opened a second application period and only the Cherokees submitted an application with the approval of local officials. Judge Wendell Griffen said the rules didn’t permit a second application period and invalidated that round of applications, but he said the rules did allow an extension of the first application period for “good cause.” Such a request was before the commission today along with a request that the Commission speed a hearing on the permit application itself should a good cause be found.

Butch Reeves of the attorney general’s office said it was up to the Commission to decide what “good cause” means. He then read a letter from the Cherokees that said it had good cause because it couldn’t get local approval until after the expiration of the first application period, which it now had.

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But Reeves also cautioned against making a firm decision until Judge Tim Fox decides a lawsuit by Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi. It contended it had a valid request for a permit on account of holding an endorsement from the county judge in Pope County in 2018, since replaced by Ben Cross. A Racing Commission rule and state law subsequently dictated that only applications with endorsements from current officials were valid. Gulfside is challenging that rule as unconstitutional.

“What if the judge decides Gulfside had a valid application?” Reeves said. He added that such a finding wouldn’t necessarily prevent the Commission from deciding that the Cherokees also had good cause for not filing in the initial period. For that matter, others might also apply under the “good cause” exception. He said the commission could theoretically consider several applications under such circumstances.

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The amendment that expanded gambling also requires an evaluation process. Even if Gulfside or the Cherokees or both are viewed as having valid applications, they’d have to be scored before a permit was awarded.

Reeves and commissioners acknowledged that the issue won’t be fully resolved until legal actions are finally decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Commission Chair Alex Lieblong said he’d like to resolve the issue because of the ongoing political turmoil in Pope County, so residents there could begin “healing.” Election results yesterday, including JP, judge and tax issues, indicated broad anti-casino sentiment by voters.

The commissioners received copies of the Cherokee “good cause” request letter and took it for study. Judge Fox will have a hearing on March 30. He could rule from the bench or sometime later.

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