Arkansas Puts Casino Gambling Legalization Referendum on November Ballot

Residents of Arkansas will have the opportunity in November to decide if they want casino gambling in their state, thanks to a petition that earned enough signatures to allow a proposed constitutional amendment to be on this fall’s ballot. The “Arkansas Wins in 2016” advocacy group drummed up over 100,000 supporters for the amendment and was informed Thursday that the Secretary of State’s office  had certified the signatures so that the amendment can be included on the ballot of the November General Election as “Issue 5.”

arkansas wins in 2016 logoThe amendment, should it pass, would permit for up to three casinos to be built in Arkansas – one each in Boone County, Miller County, and Washington County. It institutes taxes of 18 percent to the state, 1.5 percent to the city in which a casino is located, and 0.5 percent to the county.

“We’re grateful to the 100,977 registered Arkansas voters that joined with our campaign to get this pro-growth, pro-jobs issue on the ballot this November,” said Arkansas Wins in 2016 and Arkansas Winning Initiative Inc. spokesperson Robert Coon in a press release. “This amendment will create thousands of good paying jobs, generate tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue, increase tourism, and stimulate our state and local economies.”

Any proposed amendment requires 84,859 valid and confirmed signatures to make it onto this fall’s ballot. Issue 5 cleared that threshold by a solid 16,000 signatures.

Coon added:

In addition to having a statewide impact, Washington County, Miller County, and Boone County in particular stand to benefit tremendously from passage of this amendment as it will bring jobs, tax revenue, and tourism back from bordering states, and provide those communities with new gaming, hotel, entertainment, and restaurant options. We’re excited that Arkansans will have the opportunity to vote on this important amendment this November.

For those unfamiliar with the Arkansas map (like me), it is likely no happy accident that Washington, Miller, and Boone Counties were the ones picked for the amendment, as each borders neighboring states. Washington County is in the northwest corner of the state, shares its western border with Oklahoma, and is very close to Missouri. Boone County is just north and east of Washington and shares its northern border with Missouri. Miller County is in the extreme southwest corner of Arkansas and borders two states: Texas to the west and Louisiana to the south. As Coon said, it is very possible that casinos in these counties could draw customers from neighboring states, injecting money into the Arkansas economy that was not already there.

On June 23rd of this year, Arkansas Wins announced that, should the casino measure pass, it will partner with Cherokee Nation Entertainment in a resort-style casino venture in Washington County. Cherokee Nation Entertainment operates the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tulsa, Oklahoma along with eight other casinos in Oklahoma with a tenth under construction.

In a statement announcing the potential casino plans, Cherokee Nation Businesses (parent company of Cherokee Nation Entertainment) Chief Executive Officer Shawn Slaton said:

It’s been an interest of ours for many years to leverage our nearly thirty years’ experience in gaming, hospitality and entertainment into markets outside of Oklahoma. This commercial gaming venture is a natural evolution of our business model that will be good for the state, northwest Arkansas and the Cherokee Nation. We employ thousands of people, and are good community partners, and we look forward to extending that into Arkansas.

It seems that customer cannibalization is not much of a concern to Cherokee Nation. Cherokee Casino West Siloam Springs is quite literally on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. It technically borders Benton County, which is the county directly north of Washington County, but is only five miles away from Washington County. Fayetteville, the Washington County seat and third-largest city in the state, is just over twenty miles away. One would assume that plenty of gamblers that visit West Siloam Springs are from western Arkansas; if a new casino is built where these patrons are from, West Siloam might lose a good number of players or at least a good number of these players’ overall visits.

Governor Asa Hutchinson is not in favor of the amendment and has spoken out against other gambling expansion proposals before.

Multiple local news outlets quoted the Governor as saying, “I don’t think that is what we need to expand tourism in the Natural State. I think we have some great venues for electronic games of skill in Arkansas now, horse racing. That’s our tradition. That’s our history.

“Even if you were going to have casino gambling in Arkansas, this is not the means to accomplish it, whereby you have a ballot initiative that designates … three locations, that gives basically a monopoly to an out-of-state company to designate who is going have those operations.”

These “games of skill” that are currently permitted at Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis are video poker, video blackjack, and a “skill slots” game. In the latter game, players can spin the slots reels twice and decide after the first which ones they would like to keep and which to re-spin, like in video poker.

The amendment would redefine legal casino gaming as (brace yourself):

….dealing, operating, carrying on, conducting, maintaining, or exposing for play any game played with cards, dice, equipment, or any mechanical, electromechanical, or electronic device or machine for money, property, checks, credit, or any representative value, as well as accepting wagers on sporting events or other events, including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, any game, device, or type of wagering permitted at a casino operated within any one or more of the States of Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, or Texas as of November 8, 2016, or as subsequently permitted thereafter….

Essentially, most forms of tradition casino gambling, like roulette, craps, blackjack, and even poker, would become legal at licensed casinos in Arkansas.

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