Columns » Max Brantley

Faith and fortune intersect with drinking and gambling in Arkansas

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Voters motivated by religious beliefs are invariably sincere. But it doesn't mean they aren't useful foils.

A couple of good examples concern drinking and gambling.

Despite legislators' frequent invocation of the religiosity of Arkansans, a resounding majority approved a state lottery. Arkansas was late to the party, one of the reasons it topped out in sales even sooner than expected.

This has been a convenient whipping boy for the church lobby, led by the likes of that gay hate group, the Family Council. They've been busy stoking up opposition to lottery ideas to reinvigorate sales, such as by adding quick-play options, akin to keno.

This fight is being waged in other states. Bipartisan legislation was recently passed in Minnesota to ban online gambling options. The governor vetoed the bill. The legislature may have been worried less about state predation than preventing new competition for existing gambling venues.

It's an interesting coincidence that the duopoly casinos in Arkansas — at Southland in West Memphis and Oaklawn in Hot Springs — recently commissioned a study to praise their economic contribution to the state while the lottery fights a battle with legislators to expand.

It's also interesting that Arkansas legislators are nearly apoplectic about some electronic lottery games but legislation to allow Internet gambling at the racinos passed with little protest. It's also unsurprising. The tracks have used powerful lobbying and legal sophistry (slot machines are not slot machines but electronic games of skill) to enhance profits.

But casinos, too, have to worry about overexposure. Harrah's recently quit Tunica, Miss. You CAN have too much of a good thing. Two casinos in Arkansas is enough, the owners think. No need for the Arkansas Lottery to set up little mini-casinos in Arkansas shops and bars.

You see similar themes at work when it comes to alcohol. About half the counties in Arkansas ban retail sale of alcohol, even a six-pack of Milwaukee's Best. A Bible-thumping legislator also passed legislation to make it devilishly hard to vote a dry county wet — a high petition signature requirement. But enough money and determination can get it done. Wet elections have succeeded in counties ranging from Clark to Benton. A group led by a former Walmart executive and the head of the retail grocers association is currently leading a drive to take some rich targets wet — Saline, Faulkner and Craighead. All three counties are damp, with "private clubs" galore selling drinks.

The usual suspects are miffed. Sen. Jason Rapert of Conway, a Baptist preacher on the side, was outraged that alcohol petitioning had occurred in Faulkner County without consulting him.

He tried to discourage petitioning along about the time he got $4,000 in campaign contributions from Bruce Hawkins' lobbying firm and its PAC, financed in part by his lobbying client, the Conway County Legal Beverage Association. That's the Conway County booze and beer sellers. They profit immensely from bordering dry Faulkner. A lobbyist for Hawkins is an officer of a campaign formed to fight legal sales in Faulkner.

The county line liquor stores across Arkansas are going to be busy trying to protect their multimillion-dollar oases. The grocery retailers are joining a campaign for a constitutional amendment to allow sale of alcohol in all of Arkansas's counties. I like its chances, given that the majority of Arkansans live in wet counties already.

The churchmen and women will be prominent in opposition. But the political might and money will come from booze peddlers attempting to protect their turf and the politicians, like Rapert, that they support.

Keep the faith. But follow the money.

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