Monday, September 12, 2016

Casinos vs. casinos: The fight over Issue 5

Posted By on Mon, Sep 12, 2016 at 9:46 AM

click to enlarge protect.jpg
The campaign against a casino gambling amendment begins with a news conference this morning at the Capitol.

The Committee to Protect Arkansas Values — Stop Casinos Now characterizes Issue 5, which is also being contested in court, this way:

"...a scheme by two out-of-state opportunists to make millions of dollars in profit off of Arkansans by writing themselves into our Constitution,” said Chuck Lange, Chairman of Protect Arkansas Values. “It is important for voters to know why this is a bad deal for Arkansas and we look forward to laying out the case for voting no on Issue #5. The bottom line is our constitution is not for sale.”

The amendment would allow specific corporations, established and controlled by two Missouri investors, to operate casinos in Washington, Boone and Miller Counties. The Cherokee Nation is contributing heavily to the campaign in expectation of operating a casino in Washington County if the amendment reaches the ballot and is approved by voters.

Religious groups are part of the coalition opposing the casinos. But the  financial backing of the opposition group comes primarily from the state's two existing casinos, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming in West Memphis. They were permitted to begin casino gambling by 2005 legislation. The law permits the euphemistic "electronic games of skill" at establishments  that offer parimutuel gambling. That would be Oaklawn on horses and Southland on greyhounds.

And why is parimutuel wagering legal in Arkansas, but not other forms of gambling (except those electronic games of skill and the constitutionally approved state lottery)?

The legal basis is a 1949 Arkansas Supreme Court decision that held that parimutuel betting on horses was not an illegal lottery since the "element of chance" was not a controlling outcome of the horse race.

To firm that up, Oaklawn Park, which had been holding gambling on horse races for decades, won voter approval  in 1956 of Amendment 46, which said "horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering thereon shall be lawful in Hot Springs."

So, you could say, the Arkansas Constitution already has one private business written in. Southland has continued to operate without similar constitutional protection. But it did win a 1958 Arkansas Supreme Court case that applied to dog wagering the same reasoning in the 1949 case about horse wagering. Nobody has directly challenged the notion that the slot machines at West Memphis and Oaklawn are games of skill, rather than being indistinguishable  from Las Vegas slot machines.

I agree, by the way, that  extending constitutional protection to shadowy Missouri opportunists is a bad idea. But it also will be fair game when hucksters for the Missouri casino hopefuls point out that at least one other major gambling enterprise got there first — and it's a Missouri family at that.

I've often wondered if you could start parimutuel wagering on, say, pig races. And then throw up a shed full of "electronic games of skill."

The specific battle comes in the context of the growing ubiquity of gambling — as close as your cell phone. Or as close as one of those thinly disguised slot machines that have been popping up in taverns and convenience stores all over Arkansas ("for amusement only") not to mention the mini-casino known as Dave and Buster's that now attracts big dollar machine gambling in search of prizes, thanks to Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson. Whatever happens on the casino amendment, look for the next legislative battle to be over expanding the meaning of "for amusement only" when it comes to plugging coins into machines.

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