‘Driving Arkansas Forward’ ballot proposal would lead to 4 licenses casinos


esterday, a constitutional amendment that would authorize state government to issue four licenses for casino gambling was proposed, with one each for Jefferson and Pope counties, one for Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and one for Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis. The proposal is the second casino amendment offered this year by the Driving Arkansas Forward ballot question committee. The committee projected its latest proposal would raise $58.3 million a year for highways and roads, $30.7 million for local governments in the counties where the casinos would be located, $19.5 million for purse support for horse and greyhound races, and $2.7 million for state regulatory agencies.

While existing state law doesn’t allow for stand-alone casinos in Arkansas, it permits electronic games of skill that now exist at the two racetracks.

The committee on Monday asked Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge’s office to certify the proposal’s popular name and ballot title. The popular name is a few words naming the proposal, and a ballot title is a summary of what it would do.

Rutledge’s approval would clear the way under state law for the committee to begin circulating petitions to qualify the proposal for the Nov. 6 general election ballot. A sponsor of a proposed amendment is required to turn in 84,859 valid signatures of registered voters by July 6, according to the secretary of state’s office.

A month ago, Rutledge rejected the proposed popular name and ballot title for the committee’s initial proposal, which would have authorized up to three casinos in Arkansas. Her office cited several “ambiguities” in the proposed language. The committee’s latest proposal would be called The Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment of 2018.

If approved by voters, it would create the Office of Casino Gaming in the state Department of Finance and Administration, which would be required to begin accepting applications for casino licenses by June 1, 2019.

All applicants would be required to demonstrate a minimum investment of at least $100 million for the development of each proposed casino facility, and to have either a letter of support from the county judge or a resolution from the quorum court in the county where the proposed casino is to be located, and a letter of support from the mayor if the proposed casino is to be located in a city or town.

The Driving Arkansas Forward committee said its proposal would be for “enhancing the gaming operations at the iconic Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis,” while also authorizing casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties.

“This measure protects the hundreds of jobs those two facilities have created and millions of dollars in tax payments they have generated for decades to the state of Arkansas,” the committee said.

Lobbyist Don Tilton, whose clients include the Quapaw tribe that’s interested in applying for a casino license in Jefferson County, is the temporary chairman of the Driving Arkansas Forward committee.

The committee said its leadership will change in the coming days to reflect a broad coalition of business and civic leaders in the affected counties and across the state.

The committee said its proposal would curtail “the constant assault on our state from outside groups.”

“We have all witnessed in the past, election cycle after cycle, individuals and groups trying to do this the wrong way,” Nate Steel, counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward, said in a news release.

“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,” Steel said.

“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,” he said.

“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,” Steel said.

Julie Mullenix, a lobbyist for Oaklawn, on Monday said Driving Arkansas Forward’s latest proposal “is a proposal by others, not Oaklawn.”

A spokesman for Southland could not be reached for comment by telephone on Monday afternoon.

Gambling foe Jerry Cox, president of the Little Rock-based Family Council, said, “It appears that the Indian Casino people along with Oaklawn and Southland all sat down and agreed to work together at fleecing the poor of Arkansas.

“Now the Quapaw Tribe can have their casino in Pine Bluff, and Oaklawn and Southland can operate as full-blown casinos in Hot Springs and West Memphis. Then, who knows what group has Russellville in the cross hairs, but I’ll bet no one asked citizens there if they like the idea of a casino in their backyard,” Cox said in a written statement.

“There’s a blank check provision in the amendment. They’ve written it to allow these casinos to conduct any other forms of gambling the federal government may allow in years to come. My guess is they have their eye on getting into the sports betting arena,” Cox said.

Under the proposed amendment, the Office of Casino Gaming would be required to provide at least $200,000 a year for compulsive gambling disorder treatment and educational programs and to work with the Department of Human Services to implement these programs.

In 2016, the Arkansas Supreme Court blocked the counting of votes on a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed three casinos in southwest and northwest Arkansas. The high court ruled 6-1 that the ballot title was insufficient.