BRENDA BLAGG: Bad directions?

Driving Arkansas Forward’s message criticized

Posted: September 5, 2018 at 1 a.m.

The pitch was always a little too clever.

If Arkansas voters would just pass a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling, the state would get better roads, new jobs and lower taxes.

Or so claims Driving Arkansas Forward, the organization that circulated the proposed amendment and has been using a highway logo to help sell it. The amendment, if voters approve, would allow up to four casinos in the state (expanding gaming at Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis and permitting new casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties}.

The group has a lot of other explaining to do, but that road promise is the immediate focus because the Arkansas Highway Commission had something to say last week about the fine print -- or lack of it -- in the amendment voters may consider in the Nov. 6 general election.

The bottom line is that the advertising is misleading. The amendment carries no direct funding for highways.

As of this writing, the secretary of state's office hasn't determined the petitioners have submitted enough valid signatures to get the issue to the ballot, but that finding should be forthcoming.

Last week, Driving Arkansas Forward delivered almost 44,000 more signatures to add to more than 70,000 valid signatures already submitted toward the 84,869 needed to qualify for the ballot.

The issue certainly could qualify and may even survive any legal challenge. The language is what it is.

Fortunately, the folks at the state Department of Transportation studied the fine print. Then the commission that oversees the agency took an unusual step, calling Driving Arkansas Forward's hand on highway funding.

In a statement issued last week, the commission took no position on gambling in Arkansas but said citizens "need to understand that the proposal does not direct any of the revenue to be generated from the casinos to our state's highways, despite what some of the promotional ads are implying."

Language in the ads and other promotional materials "are leading people to believe that the proposed amendment would provide much needed new funding for our state's highways," according to the statement.

"That is simply not the case. Of the tax revenue estimated to be generated from the casinos, more than half (55%) is being directed to the state's general fund. None is being directed to the state's highway fund."

Nowhere in the more than 3,800 words of the proposed amendment is there any promise of road funding.

It is, however, all over Driving Arkansas Forward's website (drivingarkansasforward.com).

There reportedly was a reference in some earlier draft of the amendment, just not the version headed to the ballot. The only chance for road funding related to the amendment as it's currently written is if lawmakers decide to allocate any new revenue for that purpose. The Legislature, with the help of the governor, will determine whether that happens, but will be under no legal obligation.

It could be used for highways. Or to offset tax cuts. Or for any other purpose state-budget writers might imagine -- and persuade lawmakers to pass.

The Driving Arkansas Forward folks saw the commission's statement as an "unprecedented, unfair and inaccurate" attack. They seem to think passage of the amendment, if advertised as funding highways, would compel lawmakers to go along with that priority.

It was a blustery response to a pretty straightforward statement from the Highway Commission.

And it is surely just the first serious challenge to be brought to an ill-advised amendment, if it actually gets to the ballot.

Commentary on 09/05/2018