Arkansas AG greenlights ballot language for casino license amendment

The Arkansas Democrat
Arkansas AG greenlights ballot language for casino license amendment
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Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin on Wednesday revised and certified ballot language for a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the Arkansas Racing Commission's authority to issue a casino license in Pope County and require local voter approval in a countywide special election for a new casino license outside of three counties in Arkansas.

The Republican attorney general's action clears the way for the Local Voters in Charge ballot committee to begin collecting signatures of registered voters in its bid to qualify its proposed constitutional amendment for the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

The committee will be required to turn in 90,704 signatures of registered Arkansas voters, including signatures from 50 counties, to the secretary of state's office by July 5 to qualify the proposed constitutional amendment for the general election ballot.

The casino license has been a source of turmoil for Pope County and the state, resulting in numerous court cases. Billions of dollars are collectively wagered at the state's casinos each year.

Hans Stiritz, a spokesman for the Local Voters in Charge ballot committee, said Wednesday, "We're grateful for the attorney general's careful consideration and ultimate approval of this proposed amendment submitted by Local Voters in Charge.

"This measure will keep casinos out of communities that don't want them, and allow local voters to determine the character of their own hometowns," he said in a written statement. "We look forward to bringing our proposal to the voters of Arkansas during this busy canvassing season, and ultimately to the ballot this fall."

Allison Burum, a spokesperson for Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Businesses, said Wednesday night that "our focus remains on moving forward and fulfilling our long-standing commitments to Pope County, Russellville and the state of Arkansas.

"We continue to follow the direction of the Attorney General's office and the Arkansas Racing Commission with respect to the licensing process," she said in a written statement. "We look forward to ultimately proceeding with construction on the more than $300 million Legends Resort & Casino which will generate more than $5 billion in economic impact over the first 10 years."

Regarding the proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal the Arkansas Racing Commission's authority to issue a casino license in Pope County, Griffin said in a letter Wednesday to attorney Elizabeth Robben Murray of Friday, Eldridge & Clark LLP that he believes certain changes to the proposed ballot title were necessary to ensure it clearly and accurately sets forth the purpose of the amendment.

He said Section 3 of the measure's text adds a subsection to Amendment 100 under which, "A majority of the voters in the county where the casino is proposed to be located must approve of a casino at the special election."

While the sponsor of the proposal may intend the phrase "a majority of the voters in the county" to mean registered voters, the Arkansas Supreme Court has long defined "a majority of the voters" to mean the majority of those who actually vote on an issue, not those that could have voted, Griffin said.

"So, in the ballot title, I have changed 'majority of the voters in the county' to 'majority of those in the county who vote at the election,'" he wrote in his letter. "If instead you intend to vary from the 'fixed legal meaning' that the Arkansas Supreme Court cases cited herein describe, you may make those changes and resubmit your popular name, ballot title and full text of the proposed measure for certification."

Griffin said the proposed constitutional amendment contains a material provision that does not appear in the proposed ballot title, which would likely give voters "serious ground for reflection" and would render the ballot title misleading by omission.

The proposed ballot title inaccurately and incompletely summarize the measure's text by stating it requires "a majority of the voters in any county where any future casino is proposed to be located to approve of the casino at the special election," he said.

"So I have replaced the first instance of 'any' with 'certain' and the second instance of 'any' with 'a' to better summarize the measures's text," Griffin said.

He said he also made a few minor grammatical changes and clarifications to the ballot title to ensure it is not misleading or confusing to voters.

The proposed constitutional amendment would repeal authorization for a casino in Pope County under Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, and revoke any casino license issued for Pope County prior to the Nov. 13, 2024, effective date of the proposed constitutional amendment. If a constitutional amendment authorizes or otherwise allows the issuance of a casino license in any county other than issued for casinos operating in Crittenden, Garland and Jefferson counties, the Quorum Court of each county where a casino is to be located would be required to call a special election by ordinance to submit the question of whether to approve a casino in the county under this proposed constitutional amendment.

On March 4, Griffin rejected the Local Voters in Charge ballot committee's initial version of proposed ballot language that would repeal the racing commission's authority to issue a casino license in Pope County and require local voter approval in a countywide special election for any new casino licenses in Arkansas.

On March 6, the committee submitted its second version of its proposed ballot language to the attorney general's office, according to the attorney general's office records.

On Jan. 24, the Local Voters in Charge ballot committee filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. Jim Knight of Russellville is president of the committee and Bill James of Russellville is treasurer, according to the committee's filing. Rick Thone of Russellville and Stiritz are the committee's general officers.

Through Feb. 29, the committee reported raising $250,100 in contributions and spending $185,075, leaving $65,025 in its treasury.

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma contributed $250,000 to the committee Feb. 23, according to the committee's latest report filed March 14. The committee's largest reported expenses in February were $150,000 to Friday, Eldridge & Clark in Little Rock for legal expenses, $20,000 to Consensus Communications of Orlando, Fla., for a campaign consulting fee, and $15,000 to Campaign, Audit & Trust of Portage, Mich., for a ballot question committee audit fee.

In August 2022, the Fair Play for Arkansas committee narrowly failed to submit enough signatures to get a similar proposal on the 2022 general election ballot, Republican Secretary of State John Thurston said. The Oklahoma-based Choctaw Nation helped finance the committee.

Amendment 100 to the Arkansas Constitution, approved by voters in November 2018, authorized what is now called Southland Casino Hotel in West Memphis and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs to expand into full-fledged casinos. The amendment also allows the racing commission to license a casino apiece in Jefferson and Pope counties, and authorized sports betting at the casinos.

In June 2019, the commission awarded the Jefferson County license to the Oklahoma-based Downstream Development Authority of the Quapaw Nation. The commission subsequently voted to transfer the license to Saracen Development LLC. The casino in Pine Bluff is now called Saracen Casino Resort.

On March 11, the Arkansas Racing Commission approved proposed revisions of its casino gambling rules that could clear the way for the commission to begin accepting new applications for the Pope County casino license as early as May.

The next hurdle for the racing commission's revisions to the casino gambling rules could be the Joint Budget Committee's Administrative Rules Review Subcommittee. The Legislature convenes in a fiscal session starting April 10.

If the casino gambling rules revisions are approved by lawmakers in April, "we would be looking at certainly having applications possibly being submitted based on y'all's discussions and approval of the rubric as early as May, but certainly this summer," Doralee Chandler, deputy attorney general for state agencies, told the racing commission earlier this month.