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Give backers of a proposed new constitutional amendment credit.

They've come up with quite a gimmick to try to convince Arkansas voters to allow three casinos in a state that has repeatedly refused anything more than the gaming allowed at a couple of horse and dog racetracks.

The new gimmick? The amendment promises money for state highways, county roads and city streets as well as money for host counties and cities.

Now, understand that this proposal is far from the ballot. It is but an idea being pushed by a private group called Driving Arkansas Forward.

The proposal must clear an initial review by the state attorney general's office. The attorney general has to certify an amendment's popular name and ballot title before backers can even begin circulating petitions.

Then it is a long, hard row to get any such issue to the November general election ballot.

They'll need to collect 84,859 valid signatures from registered voters by July 6. And they'll need winning arguments against the inevitable court challenge to the signatures and/or the language of the proposed amendment.

The last casino amendment, offered to voters in 2016, got on the ballot but a late decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court would not allow the votes to be counted.

The proposal landed on the pile with other failed initiatives, most of which were much more popular with the people they would have enriched than with the general electorate in Arkansas.

That's what makes this new gimmick interesting.

There is a huge constituency in Arkansas for better roads and highways, but there is no agreement on how to get the money to pay for them.

Could those road advocates be persuaded to work for and pass a casino amendment for the tax revenue it might generate annually for roads?

Mind you, this proposal could still be blocked anywhere along the way, as others have been.

The question is whether Arkansans, who have not been willing to accept other casino plans, would accept this one.

Probably not.

Opposition to gaming anywhere but Oaklawn in Hot Springs and Southland in West Memphis has proved stout, especially since owners of those establishments have largely funded the opposition campaigns.

But there are other reasons, too, the greatest of which is the fact that gaming may attract people who can ill afford to lose their food and gas money.

Yet, part of the reasoning in this proposed amendment is to put casinos where the economy is suffering.

The first gaming license is intended go to a casino in Jefferson County. A second could go to Crittenden County and a third to one of six other eligible counties (Crawford, Miller, Mississippi, Pope, Union or White).

The reasons for these specific counties are a bit complicated but have to do with population and how the Arkansas Economic Development Commission ranks them.

Approval of licensees and sites would be up to the Arkansas Lottery Division of the state Department of Finance and Administration.

At least it is intended to be merit-based. Some past gaming amendments have wrong-headedly tried to write specific individual owners or operators into the state Constitution.

Still, while struggling counties could use the required minimum $100 million investment a casino might bring, including new jobs, do these Arkansas people need the temptation of such easy access to gaming in their environs?

An awful lot of Arkansans don't think so.

There are tons of questions to be resolved. Some even have to do with the money promised for highways.

The money would come from a 12 percent tax on each casino's annual net gaming receipts. Of the tax receipts, 65 percent would go to roads and bridges. The amount is estimated at $45 million, which state highway officials say is only about 10 percent of what they need

Don't misunderstand. This proposal is not about solving the state's highway needs. It is about building a constituency for gaming.

Not only is 65 percent of the tax revenue earmarked for highways, the county and city governments where a casino is located would get earmarked funds, too. The county would get 10 percent of the tax revenue and the city 22.5 percent. The county would get all 32.5 percent if the casino is not located in a city or town. The remaining 2.5 percent of casino tax revenue would go to the state Lottery Division.

Keep in mind that local governments will need money to police the addition of a casino within their respective jurisdictions, so don't think of that money as some huge windfall. It isn't.

Nonetheless, the plan is to persuade voters that they'll get more good than bad from increased gaming in this state.

Expect Arkansans to see the gimmick for what it is -- if the proposed amendment even survives to reach the ballot.

Commentary on 01/10/2018

Print Headline: Rolling the dice

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