An ad hoc Russellville panel yesterday recommended that Kehl Management, an Iowa casino operator, be chosen to open the casino allowed in Pope County under a constitutional amendment approved by state voters last year.
Does this make them favorite to get the permit? This bookmaker says no.
The morning line still favors the Cherokee bid, because it has the legally decisive approval of the Pope County Quorum Court, which has said it will not be moved in its choice of the Cherokees. The Indian nation promised $38.8 million in upfront cash payments to the county and various cities, not including Russellville (which nonetheless would share disproportionately in subsidies to countywide services.)
A longshot bet remains the Gulfside Casino Partnership of Mississippi, which is counting on the courts, ultimately the Arkansas Supreme Court, to adhere to a precedent of close reading of the text of statutes and constitutional amendments. Amendment 100 said casino applicants needed approval of county officials. Gulfside has such a letter of approval from the man who was lameduck county judge in late December when he signed it. The state legislature and Racing Commission have adopted a law and rule that say a permit application must be approved by the current officeholder. Gulfside contends this impermissibly adds a new qualification to a constitutional amendment, in theory a legal no-no.
Multiple lawsuits, an ethics complaint and a complaint of sunshine law violation are all still hanging fire. That’s one reason I decline to put heavy emphasis on the Russellville auction for approval yesterdayt.
The cash dash and private dealmaking have generally been unseemly.
In the Russellville auction, the cash handouts proposed over 30 years, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, were $178 million from Kehl; $156 million from Warner Gaming; $90 million from Cherokee Businesses, and $44 million from the Choctaw Nation. Gulfside has promised local contributions in excess of taxes, too, but did not participate in this auction. It’s unclear whether any comparison could be drawn in the Russellville offers with the upfront $38.8 million money the Cherokees promised Pope County. Current money is more valuable than future money.
The bidding brings to mind Jefferson County, where the Quapaw tribe won the new casino permit without competition and without making a specific promise of cash handouts. Some are grumbling about the “failure” by local officials to shake down the Quapaws for dough. Others see the payouts too much like the pay-to-play schemes so beloved of unscrupulous politicians. The Quapaws have, it should be noted, already made a number of local investments in public works and say they plan more. One facet of Amendment 100 is a higher local government take in casino taxes, but a sharp cut in the state casino tax. That’s serioius new money in Jefferson County.
Meanwhile, though the Racing Commission may grant a permit to the Cherokees in mid-November (I’d predict that outcome, if a court injunction doesn’t intervene), I still wouldn’t expect a spade to immediately start turning dirt. Pope County must wait many months to hear the jingle of slots, already dinging in a temporary casino annex in Pine Bluff.