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Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling are some clever folks.

Not only have they seized upon funding highway improvements as a carrot for public support for their measure, now they've amended it to silence some of their most likely opponents or make them allies.

On Monday, the group Driving Arkansas Forward submitted a second proposal. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge rejected its first offering. She'll have to certify the proposal's popular name and ballot title before petitioners can begin collecting the 84,859 valid signatures necessary to get it to the November ballot.

This new proposal would authorize the state to issue four licenses for casino gambling. New stand-alone casinos could be allowed in Jefferson and Pope counties.

The other two licenses would go to long-established horse and dog racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis, each of which already offers gaming at their respective locations.

It is the racetracks that backers of the amendment are now trying to bring on board for this latest effort to authorize casino gambling.

This is hardly the first try in Arkansas to get the public to approve full-fledged casino gambling. Many amendments have been proposed and failed.

Among the reasons has always been a ready supply for opposition funding, much of it coming from folks who didn't want anyone else horning in on the lucrative gambling business.

Understand, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis have had the only games in the state. They offer "electronic games of skill" at their respective racetracks.

Depending on where other casinos have been proposed to be located in the past, competitors across the state's borders, such as casinos in Tunica, Miss., or the Indian casinos in Oklahoma, have put their money into campaigns to defeat upstart casinos in Arkansas.

They weren't the only foes, of course. A lot of people, including some who may frequent out-of-state casinos, don't support having them in Arkansas.

Nor do many others, including the Little Rock-based Family Council. Spokesman Jerry Cox, a long-time opponent to gambling, said it appears that the Indian casino people, Oaklawn and Southland "all sat down and agreed to work together at fleecing the poor of Arkansas."

It isn't clear just how much coordination has happened. Southland has praised the project, although an Oaklawn spokesman said track officials didn't know the details of the proposal and declined comment.

Nevertheless, the potential lure to the state's poor is another of the complaints made about casinos generally and this proposal in particular.

The proposed casino in Jefferson County would be in or near Pine Bluff, where it could entice some of the state's most economically challenged residents to gamble.

The flip side of that argument is that a casino would bring jobs and boost the local economy.

Applicants would have to secure support from local leaders, prove they could operate a casino and demonstrate they will invest at least $100 million.

Like the earlier proposal this year for casino gambling, this one would promise millions to the state for highways and roads and millions more for local governments in counties where casinos would be located. This new proposal would also direct money to support the purses for horse and dog races.

Pledging the bulk of the money to highways and roads is a clever gimmick to attract voters who might have a marginal interest in casinos but a strong desire for better highways. Nevermind that gamblers, not highway users, would pay for them.

To be sure, gambling opponents would fight the amendment with or without highway funding. They just won't have all their usual allies from the gaming world to help in the fight.

Brace for all of those arguments, should the issue actually make it to the ballot.

A lot still must happen before voters would ever see it.

First, the attorney general must sign off on the wording for the ballot. Presumably, as soon as that happens, Driving Arkansas Forward will be ready to collect signatures.

They would most certainly hope to have a petition drive in full swing by the time of the state's primary elections. They can't get too close to the polling sites, but that's where known registered voters show up.

Backers of this and any other petition cleared by the attorney general's office between now and then will be there, too, clipboard in hand.

Commentary on 02/28/2018

Print Headline: Upping the ante

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