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Analysis: Dueling casino measures could dominate airwaves

March 31, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Competing proposals to legalize casinos in four Arkansas counties may guarantee that voters will be inundated with ads on the issue, but the focus likely won’t be whether the state needs another gambling option. The debate instead could hinge on what type of casinos would be palatable to this Bible Belt state.

Arkansas Wins in 2018 Inc. filed paperwork Tuesday with the Arkansas Ethics Commission to campaign for a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize casinos at specifically designated locations in Benton, Boone, Miller and Pulaski counties. The proposal was filed with the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office.

It’s the second effort to put expanded gambling before voters this fall. Another group, Driving Arkansas Forward, is trying to put a separate proposal on the November ballot that would legalize casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties, while allowing casinos at the Oaklawn horse track in Hot Springs and at the Southland greyhound track in West Memphis. Both tracks already offer electronic “games of skill.”

The attorney general must sign off on a proposed constitutional amendment’s language before supporters can begin gathering the thousands of signatures needed from registered voters to qualify for the November ballot.

The competing proposals set the stage for a reprise of the fight seen two years ago, when a casino legalization measure was struck from the ballot by the state Supreme Court. One of the officers for Arkansas Wins in 2018, the latest casino legalization effort, was connected to the 2016 proposal that was struck down by the court.

The lawsuit challenging the 2016 measure was filed by a group funded by Southland and Oaklawn, which would benefit if the Driving Arkansas Forward measure is approved. The argument against the Arkansas Wins in 2018 proposal is similar to what opponents said about the 2016 measure: that it’s an effort by out-of-state interests to write themselves into Arkansas’ constitution.

“The Driving Arkansas Forward amendment gives communities a real voice in the process and ensures a transparent, merit-based selection of casino operators,” said former state Rep. Nate Steel, counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward. “It also recognizes and protects two great Arkansas institutions, Oaklawn and Southland, that have created hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for our State.”

An attorney for Arkansas Wins in 2018 declined to respond to Steel’s criticism of the measure last week and would have a more formal announcement later.

Both proposals appear aimed at winning voters over by calling for the bulk of net casinos proceeds going toward the state’s highways.

If history is any guide, one or both proposals reaching the ballot means that casinos could overshadow some of the state’s other top races when it comes to political advertising. Supporters and opponents of the casino measure spent more than $2 million on television ads over the proposal two years ago.

The fight between the two groups will focus on what is the best approach for introducing casinos in a state that already has plenty of gambling options. Despite the state’s conservative bent, Arkansans can already buy lottery tickets, play video poker, participate in charitable bingo or bet at the tracks.

Expanded gambling opponents say the prospect of two measures duking it out between it each other could make their job more difficult, but they’re taking no chances. The conservative Family Council Action Committee had already been speaking out against the Driving Arkansas Forward proposal before the latest measure emerged.

“What you have is you have these people that want to make money off of poor people here in Arkansas dressing up their measures by claiming they’re going to be doing something benevolent for the people of Arkansas like build a road or some other things,” Jerry Cox, the head of the council, said. “The reality is they’re just looking at how to make money at our expense.”

The coming weeks and months won’t just determine how many proposals go before voters. It’ll also determine how much the issue will dominate Arkansas’ airwaves.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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