Casinos among best bets to make the ballot

By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Where Arkansans practice pure democracy – we make the laws rather than elected officials doing it – is in the ballot issues. This year, those led by citizens could be a lot more interesting than those referred by the Legislature.

Here are some of the issues being proposed by citizens: casinos, medical marijuana, gay/transgender rights, term limits, limiting damages in medical lawsuits, campaign finance reform.

Here’s what you’ll be voting on courtesy of lawmakers: letting the governor retain his or her powers when out of state; increasing the terms of county officials to four years; and expanding the ability of local governments to fund economic development projects. Those are important, but no one ever got into a fight over the governor’s out-of-state powers. Well, maybe they did on Facebook.

When citizens try to place a measure on the ballot, the important first hurdle they must overcome isn’t gaining popular support. It’s having enough money to collect signatures and fight potential lawsuits. A proposed constitutional amendment requires 84,859 signatures. An initiated act, which creates a law, requires 67,887. To reach those kinds of numbers, it really helps if you can pay people to walk the streets with clipboards. So if you want to know which of those issues actually will make the ballot, look at the ones where backers who already have money are trying to make more of it.

At first glance, that would include the casino initiative. A group of investors wants to build three casinos, one each in Washington County (Fayetteville-Springdale); Miller County (Texarkana); and Boone County (next door to Branson). Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has certified the amendment’s popular name and title, so now it’s in the signature-collecting phase.

This will be the latest of many efforts to bring casinos to Arkansas. Most if not all of the backers of this amendment have been involved in one or more of those previous efforts. So far, those have always failed, either by not gathering enough signatures or not withstanding a legal challenge of some sort. Asa Hutchinson, then a private attorney representing the secretary of state’s office, helped keep one such effort off the ballot in 2012.

The arguments have been the same since Mississippi rolled the dice with its first casino in Tunica in 1992. Opponents point to the human and societal costs that casinos cause – the lost money, the addiction, the broken marriages. They call it “gambling.” Supporters say casinos already exist across the state border, so Arkansas may as well have some fun and create the jobs and tax revenue. They call it “gaming.”

And on the third side are Oaklawn and Southland, which race horses and dogs on the side while operating their own casinos. Thanks to a 2005 law, these feature “electronic games of skill” with digital versions of playing cards and dice. They don’t want competition and will spend their own money to fight it – on lawyers to try to keep it off the ballot, and on a political campaign if they can’t. In a good example of “politics makes strange bedfellows,” they work in parallel with family values groups to defeat the casino initiatives. So far, they’re all undefeated.

As usual, this year’s casino proposal would bestow on its backers a permanent monopoly enshrined in the Arkansas Constitution, which is a pretty good deal if you can get it. They and only they, or their designees, could operate these three casinos forever, with no one allowed to compete with them unless they also pass a constitutional amendment.

What else? A proposal limiting medical lawsuit damages has a good chance of making the ballot for the same reason that the casino gambling measure does: People with money would be able to make more money. Under that standard, the term limits measure – it would tighten legislative terms to 10 years – faces an uphill climb, but it does have a passionate group of supporters who’ve been working for a while. Medical marijuana has some momentum as a concept but not the financial muscle, and supporters are divided into competing camps.

What ultimately will make the ballot? The three referred by the Legislature are the only sure bet, but you could roll the dice on the casinos and a couple of others.

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