RiverFest will include a familiar feature from years past — canvassers circulating petitions to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
I’ve confirmed that Driving Arkansas Forward will have canvassers at work seeking signatures for their amendment to legalize full casinos, with sports wagering, at Oaklawn and Southland Parks and to authorize casinos in Pope and Jefferson Counties.
I’ve been told that the amendment need not be published in a statewide newspaper for signature gathering to begin now that the ballot title has been approved by the attorney general.
It will be an expensive process to hire a company to gather the 84,000-plus signatures needed by July 6, with representative numbers from 15 counties. The group had hoped to begin April and gather signatures at May primary elections, but were delayed by repeated resistance from Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, settled finally by a Supreme Court challenge by backers of an amendment to raise the minimum wage.
The casino amendment was originally written to benefit highway construction. Now, most of the money will go to state general revenues, with some allocations for local government and greyhound and thoroughbred purses. That will diminish one selling point. Trust the legislature to spend the windfall wisely?
But, apart from the usual religious lobby objections, no organized opposition with deep pockets has yet emerged, as when the racetracks fought some past casino measures.
Another casino measure, for four new casinos protected by name in the Constitution, has been approved as to form. I’ve been unable to reach backers willing to say whether they have plans to go forward this year. The same Missouri businessmen lead that effort that lost an effort to get a similar measure on the ballot in 2016.
Money has lined up, multiple sources tell me, with Driving Arkansas Forward and reports should be filed soon outlining some of it. The Cherokee and Quapaw Tribes, veterans of Oklahoma casino operations, are supporters, as is the Southland racino in West Memphis. The Oaklawn Jockey Club has announced no opposition and is expected to be a supporter and perhaps a financial contributor. Though the amendment means some new gambling competition, it solidifies the legality of the casino at Oaklawn, now operating somewhat dubiously against the Constitution’s anti-lottery provision with “electronic games of skill” that look for all the world like regular slot machines. It also would be viewed as likely to quell further casino amendment efforts in the future.
Key fact: The Cherokee Tribe spent $4.5 million in the Missouri group’s casino amendment in 2016, but it is going with a different proposal this year. A key question is whether the Missouri investors can find another deep pocket. The tribe operates a casino in West Siloam Springs, Okla., and would have put a casino in Washington County had that measure been approved. Ironically, the measure was knocked off the ballot because it permitted sports wagering, then illegal under Arkansas law. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down such state bans.
The sports wagering is potentially a huge money-maker. The advent of an increased revenue stream could give Oaklawn, which is tinkering with its thoroughbred racing schedule and which apparently has an eye toward more big races later in the spring, could have the resources for a series of big-dollar racing events that could mean a huge tourist draw in Hot Springs.
But first, you need signatures. That starts now.
FYI: What the amendment says about tax revenue:
* A net casino gaming receipts tax of 13% on the first $150,000,000 of net casino gaming receipts or any part thereof, and 20% on net casino gaming receipts exceeding $150,000,001.
* Tax shall be distributed 55% to the State of Arkansas General Revenue Fund, 17.5% to the Commission for deposit into the Arkansas Racing Commission Purse and Awards Fund to be used only for purses for live horse racing and greyhound racing by Oaklawn and Southland,, 8% to the county in which the casino is located, and 19.5% to the city in which the casino is located, provided that if the casino is not located within a city, then the county in which the casino is located shall receive the 19.5%
PS: David Couch, attorney for a minimum wage measure that forced Rutledge to certify proposals, now tells me he and Dustin McDaniel are working with the Cherokee Tribe on canvassing for this amendment. He says he’s optimistic about raising money for the minimum wage proposal. He hopes to find out more about support for the nonpartisan legislative redistricting commission idea next week.
By way of an idea on cost of canvassing, Couch said he expected it would cost about $450,000 to qualify the minimum wage proposal, an initiated act. An initiated act needs 67,887 amendments or roughly $7 per signature. That would push canvassing costs for an amendment to almost $600,000. But that’s only the beginning of costs. Advertising costs would be significant.