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A flawed constitutional amendment continues to slow casino gambling in Pope County, even as three other casino operations in the state are set to reopen next week.

Temporarily closed because of covid-19 safeguards, existing casinos will reopen Monday at limited capacity. Pope County, courted by several operators, still has no casino. Nor will it have one anytime soon.

Amendment 100, approved by voters in 2018, required issuance of licenses for four full-fledged casinos in the state, each in a constitutionally set locale.

Two were to come as expansions of gaming at longstanding horse and dog racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis, respectively. The others were to be brand new, stand-alone casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties.

Heavily backed by casino developers who wanted to get into business in Arkansas, the ballot proposal was drawn to guarantee licenses for the two racetrack operators, who might have otherwise opposed the amendment.

It passed with 54.1 percent of the vote in November 2018.

Within months, folks in Hot Springs and West Memphis promptly moved to develop enhanced facilities at Oaklawn Jockey Club and Southland Racing Corp. sites.

Pine Bluff and Jefferson County signed on to plans for the Quapaw Nation-developed Saracen Casino Resort, which is scheduled to open fully this year but is already operating a smaller annex. No one else sought the casino license in Jefferson County.

While Amendment 100 is reaping what those developers and their host communities expected, who will get the fourth casino license is still very much unresolved.

Different developers have planned extravagant casino resorts in Pope County, but all of their applications were rejected in a first application round.

Two are back in the regulatory pipeline now, meaning the Arkansas Racing Commission is again considering them for that one remaining license.

Promised litigation will follow whatever action comes from the commission, so the truth is no casino is anywhere near realization in Pope County.

Yet, the tortured selection process that began in late 2018 continues.

A Mississippi company, Gulfside Casino Partnership, popped into the picture soon after Amendment 100's passage. The company had surprisingly secured local endorsements from the then-Pope County judge and the then-mayor of Russellville for its permit application. Amendment 100 requires local endorsements in some form before the Racing Commission can consider issuing a license.

Both of those officials were on their way out of office, having been defeated by challengers, but Gulfside has steadfastly maintained the endorsements satisfy the Amendment 100 requirements.

Before considering any of the applications, the state Racing Commission adopted a regulation that such endorsements had to come from officials serving at the time of the application. The Legislature passed a law to the same effect.

Naturally, litigation ensued and in late March this year, a Pulaski County circuit judge found both the commission rule and the new law unconstitutional. Judge Tim Fox further ruled that the Racing Commission, which had rejected Gulfside's application along with others that carried no endorsements, had to consider Gulfside's proposal on its merits.

Competition for the Pope County license, of course, continued during the litigation.

Cherokee Nation Businesses, which is based in Oklahoma, eventually won endorsement from the current county judge and Quorum Court and submitted those during a second application window.

Yet another court decision subsequently forced the commission to abandon that second window. The commission found itself with only Gulfside's application bearing those lame-duck local endorsements.

Then came an April 15 commission meeting this year in which commissioners accepted Cherokee Nation Businesses' application for "good cause," the good cause being that it carries endorsements from current local officials.

The commissioners also accepted Judge Fox's ruling to consider Gulfside's application on its merits, forgoing any appeal.

The way the meeting was conducted by video conference, quickly and with little discussion, drew strong criticism that it had violated the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Last week, the commission did a do-over meeting to accept again the application from Cherokee Nation Businesses, citing that same "good cause."

The reason for the do-over, the commission claimed, was to address problems created by "technical difficulties" at the April 15 meeting. The 90-minute do-over meeting was by conference call with only audio available for public consumption, so the session was itself less than transparent.

But it is done and the next step in this convoluted process involves a gambling consultant from Scottsdale, Ariz., who has been contracted by the Racing Commission to review the applications of both Gulfside and Cherokee Nation Businesses.

The consultant, Jim Fox, will recommend which applicant should be awarded the Pope County license, although the decision will still fall to the Racing Commission.

Then, all of it will inevitably get hashed through again in court.

Commentary on 05/13/2020

Print Headline: Still a gamble

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