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Arkansas' passage last year of a casino gaming amendment promised exactly the sort of trouble that has erupted in Pope County.

A couple of lame duck officials there, on their way out of office, gave support to a particular company that wants to operate a casino, despite the fact local voters in November not only rejected the amendment but also passed a local ordinance intended to give Pope County voters say over such official endorsements.

Implementation of Amendment 100 is a confusing mess that was further complicated by the local Pope County ordinance. It may all ultimately have to be sorted out by the courts. Here's the story:

Amendment 100, presented as Issue 4 on the November ballot, passed by just better than 54 percent in the statewide vote. It dictates that gaming licenses be issued for full-fledged casinos in four specific counties.

One license each will go to existing gambling operations in Crittenden and Garland counties, where there are dog and horse tracks with adjacent casinos now.

The other two licenses are to go to new casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties to applicants approved by the Arkansas Racing Commission.

While voters statewide (and in the other chosen counties) approved the amendment, voters in Pope County said no to the measure. About 60 percent of the Pope County voters rejected the amendment, which nevertheless says that a casino license "shall" be issued for Pope County and the other locations.

The amendment doesn't dictate when or to whom the license for a new casino must be issued, just that one will be.

A provision in Amendment 100 theoretically assured a local voice, requiring casino applicants to obtain a letter of support from the county judge or the local Quorum Court. For casinos to be located in a city, a similar endorsement is required of the local mayor.

Gaming foes in Pope County wanted more say in the matter and put up a local ordinance intended to require a local public vote before any of the county authorities could endorse the idea. That local ordinance passed with 68 percent of the vote, theoretically assuring the Pope County citizenry that majority will would control the situation.

Then came late December letters of support for a casino from then-County Judge Jim Ed Gibson and later from then-Russellville Mayor Randy Horton. Both lost re-election bids in November in the same election in which Pope County voters passed the local ordinance requiring a public vote before such endorsement letters can be submitted.

For the record, support from the lame-duck officials is for an application being prepared by a Mississippi developer, Gulfside Casino Partnership. That group hopes to build a 600-room, $254 million hotel and casino in Russellville.

The company and others who want a casino license think the local ordinance is unconstitutional. That question is the crux of ongoing litigation.

A more immediate decision about related rule making, however, may momentarily mute that discussion.

The state Racing Commission is to meet this week to consider proposed casino licensing rules.

If approved, the rules being suggested would require any local endorsement to be signed off on by the county judge and all quorum court members plus the mayor, if the casino is in a city. Importantly, the new rules would require endorsements from the elected officials in office the time an application for a casino gaming license is submitted.

That hasn't happened yet, nor can it until the Racing Commission adopts its rules.

If the commission accepts this latest draft, the endorsements from the lame ducks may not matter.

So, stay tuned to find out how, or if, the Racing Commission approves rules.

And expect the litigation, as well as efforts to legislate fixes to Amendment 100, to continue.

It is a mess and will be one for a long while to come.

Commentary on 01/09/2019

Print Headline: Who'll go all in?

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