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Endorsement changes proposed for casinos

by Jeannie Roberts | January 7, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.

Changes that toughen endorsement requirements in proposed casino licensing rules were part of the refinement process and not a response to an ongoing controversy and a lawsuit in Pope County, an agency spokesman said Friday.

The state Racing Commission will meet to discuss the proposed rules on Thursday. The Racing Commission, which is within the state Department of Finance and Administration, will oversee the licensing and operation of the four casinos that voters authorized in November.

Scott Hardin, spokesman for the finance department, said in an email that the change in the draft rules is simply part of “an evolving process as the Commission works to establish the best possible set of draft rules.

“As we approach next week’s meeting, this edit presents the Commission a new option for consideration,” Hardin said. “The change is a result of ongoing review of the amendment and its intention. It is not uncommon for draft rules to receive adjustments as this is simply a component of the process.”

State constitutional Amendment 100, approved by voters in November, authorized placing casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties as well as alongside existing gambling facilities at the racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis.

The amendment states that the casinos in Pope and Jefferson counties must include letters of support from either the county judge or the Quorum Court. If the casino is to be built within city limits in those counties, it also must have the mayor’s support.

The latest changes to the proposed rules stipulate that any endorsement from a county’s quorum court must also be signed off by the county judge, all quorum court members or the mayor, if applicable. The endorsements must come “at the time of the submission of an application for a casino gaming license,” according to the changes. The changes were reported Thursday by the Arkansas Times.

Public outcry and a lawsuit ensued after letters were submitted last month to the Racing Commission from Jim Ed Gibson, then the county judge of Pope County, and then-Russellville Mayor Randy Horton endorsing a Mississippi company’s proposal to build a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in Russellville. The actions came days before the end of Gibson and Horton’s terms in office.

While the constitutional amendment passed overwhelmingly in Jefferson County and is supported by local officials there, Pope County voters soundly rejected the measure and also passed a local ordinance that would require the county judge or the Quorum Court to get the permission of voters in a local election before supporting a casino.

The language in Amendment 100 does not stipulate that a quorum court endorsement also be signed by the county judge or the mayor.

When asked if the recent changes to the proposed rules contradict the amendment, Hardin said that “while the amendment does not directly reference a signature, it is certainly implied that the mayor or county judge support the resolution.”

Hardin said it is “unclear” what would happen if a county judge or mayor chose not to sign a resolution passed by a quorum court supporting a casino license applicant.

“It has not been formally addressed,” Hardin said.

The 340-page draft rules for operating a casino in Arkansas were released by the Racing Commission last week. The rules include regulatory requirements for offering card games, sports betting and other forms of gambling. The rules were developed from Nevada’s casino regulations, Racing Commission attorney Byron Freeland said.

If approved at the Thursday meeting, the rules will be published for a 30-day public comment period before receiving final approval from the commission and lawmakers.

At that point, casino license applications for either Jefferson or Pope counties can be submitted. Review of the applications will begin no later than June 1, according to the amendment.

If more than one entity applies for a license in the same county, the commission will determine which is the strongest proposal and best for the county and state of Arkansas, Hardin said.

Southland Gaming and Racing greyhound racetrack at West Memphis and Oak-lawn Racing and Gaming thoroughbred track in Hot Springs are exempt from the requirement to obtain approval of local officials to develop full-fledged casinos.

In mid-November, Jefferson County and Pine Bluff officials issued letters of support of the proposed Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, which is being planned by the development arm of the Quapaw Nation. No other casino operators have publicly expressed interest in locating there.

Only Gulfside Partnership — which operates the Island View Casino Resort in Gulf-port, Miss. — has announced proposals to build a casino in Pope County. State Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russell-ville, said previously that the Cherokee Nation, Choctaw Casinos and Warner Gaming had also expressed interest.

Alex Gray, an attorney who helped draft Amendment 100 for Driving Arkansas Forward, said he was surprised by the opposition from Pope County. Gray said “local leaders and business people” were receptive during the planning stages.

“We did not view this as a situation where it was any kind of imposition on the location,” Gray said.

Jefferson and Pope counties were selected after a lengthy process of elimination. The group wanted stand-alone resort casinos in each quadrant of the state and in counties that would benefit the most from the tax revenue, Gray said.

“We didn’t want our state to have casinos at every turn and be a casino state,” Gray said. “We wanted to do it in a moderate way, a very tasteful way that the voters would accept.”

When asked if the recent changes to the proposed rules contradict the amendment, Hardin said that “while the amendment does not directly reference a signature, it is certainly implied that the mayor or county judge support the resolution.”

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