The casino political fun continues with Pope County judge op-ed | Arkansas Blog

The casino political fun continues with Pope County judge op-ed

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The Arkansas Racing Commission is preparing to take applications for casino permits in Pope and Jefferson Counties, but the high-powered politicking is already well underway in Pope County as evidenced by a seeming shift in tone from Pope County Judge Ben Cross.

The Commission said it will begin accepting applications May 1 and take them through May 30.

The Quapaw tribe seems likely to be the only applicant for a casino in Jefferson County, with approval from local officials already in hand.

Pope County? The plot grows ever more complicated. Pope County is where voters both defeated the casino expansion amendment (only the favorable statewide vote counted) and also approved an ordinance requiring approval of voters before a casino could go forward. The amendment itself requires approval of local officials, which Mississippi casino operators won from lame-duck county officials in Pope County. Subsequent rules approved by the Racing Commission said approval of current office holders was required with permit applications.

Legal opinions differ on whether Pope County may require a local vote since such a vote is not mentioned in the constitutional amendment. Legal opinions also differ on whether the Commission can effectively disqualify approval given by local officials at the end of 2018.



So what's to happen? The prediction is that the Cherokee tribe will apply for a permit as will the Gulfside casino operators from Mississippi. And maybe others. Warner Gaming is interested. The Racing Commission could be expected to reject a permit endorsed by lame-duck county officials last year. Gulfside could then be expected to sue over that and perhaps to also challenge the local vote referendum.

And what of the Cherokees, widely presumed to be less than enthusiastic about a Pope County casino given that they have one already operating about 80 miles west on the Oklahoma border?

Here's one indication that local opinions may be changing to suit politics (to help with your scorecard, former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is at work for the Cherokee tribe). But not, as I wrote originally based on reports from others, former Senate leader Michael Lamoureux. He said is opposed to a casino in Pope County and had frequent discussions on the topic with County Judge Ben Cross and others. He commented: "I don’t know if Pope County will ever have a casino. If they do it should be because the locals decided to accept it Not forced by a commission or the result of litigation."

County Judge Ben Cross, who's previously been adamant about not endorsing a casino without a vote, sounded friendly to the Cherokees in an op-ed that appeared in the River Valley Now website over the weekend. Title: "Pope County Casino: Fact from Fiction."

Among others, Cross writes how Pope was picked for a casino in an amendment drive led by the Quapaws and by the existing casinos at Southland and Oaklawn, which won legal operation of full-fledged casinos with sports books and a significant tax cut with passage of the amendment.

.... the first version of the amendment stated the casino was to be located in one of the following counties: Crawford, Crittenden, Jefferson, Miller, Mississippi, Pope, Union, or White. Once this version was struck down by the Attorney General, subsequent versions became much more specific. The version ultimately accepted had Pope County as the selection. While keeping in consideration there has to be “space” between markets, so as to not infringe on another gaming entities business, the needle stopped on Pope County.
Cross also said Pope seemed "friendly" to gambling based on lottery ticket sales and participation in online gambling, based on internet address tracking. And what about local votes? Here it gets interesting (and if Cross wrote this letter himself, without help from one of the lawyers working for casino interests, I'd be surprised.)

Can Pope County have another election to decide once and for all, whether a casino comes here?

No. While the county judge could call for a special election, it could only be subject to matters of law. The simple question of “do you want a casino, YES or NO” cannot be on a ballot. Law was established with the passage of Amendment 100 on November 6th and cannot be reversed, nor amended, without going through the entire process of another constitutional amendment before the state of Arkansas. ...

What about the “Local Option”?

Pope County voters passed Ordinance 2018-O-42 by a margin of 68.07% to 31.93% which placed a restriction on the ability of the county judge to issue a letter of support to a particular casino vendor without first putting that measure before the voters of Pope County. The language of this ordinance does not offer the question of “do you want a casino?” but rather concerns the act of issuing a support letter alone. Furthermore, in paragraph 3.1 of the ordinance, it states if such election was to be called, it would require “a majority of the registered voters of Pope County,” not simply a majority of votes cast.

To put this into perspective, there are 34,792 registered voters in Pope County, meaning 17,397 voters would have to come out to an election, and all 17,397 would have to vote one way. Taking into account only 18,051 people voted in the last general election, you can easily see this is a threshold which can never be attained.

As a side note, you should also know the authors of Amendment 100 placed the language requiring a letter of support from the county judge, and/or mayor if located within the city limits, as the “local option” mechanism to pass the scrutiny of the Attorney General’s Office. This simply means, the office of county judge as the chief executive officer of the county, represents the majority views of the county, and therefore in a representative democracy, has the discretion to act on behalf of those he was elected to represent.
Does this sound like a legal argument against the validity of the local ordinance to you? Does it sound like a legal opinion that the decision is up to the county judge? Cross also notes the amendment says four casinos "shall" be permitted and that the governor and legislature are already counting on growing casino tax revenue to pay for highway construction.

If you think Cross is pointing toward ultimate casino approval in Pope County,  let's consider what Cross thinks about potential applicants — Gulfside, Cherokee, Warner Gaming and perhaps even the Choctaw tribe, another Oklahoma casino operator. Emphasis supplied:

Could we get “stuck” with an “Indian” casino?

First, there is no such thing as an “Indian” casino once they step foot into the state of Arkansas. The casinos owned by Native Americans become just another limited liability corporation (LLC) once they start a business in Arkansas. They pay the same tax rates and are afforded no special privileges in our state. The only place where Native American tribes enjoy preferential operating status is in a 15 county area in northeast Oklahoma. The notion that Native American tribes will “bus in people for construction and take all their money back to Oklahoma” is simply untrue. Likewise, is the notion, “they will just throw up a metal building and begin operating their casino.” Frankly, the Cherokee have presented the most economically beneficial and most open [economic development plan] EDP to date. Additionally, they have provided financial stability to back up what they say and have presented architectural renderings of a facility that are quite staggering, and look nothing like what one would associate with their operations in Oklahoma; in fact, it looks nothing like a casino at all.
Cross is very careful to say he's mindful of voters' wishes. But he also acknowledges that he's been meeting with potential casino operators despite voter disapproval of casinos generally.

If the courts were to rule in favor of the gaming industry and come down with what amounts to a “thou shall have a casino” ruling, then is not the time to just start learning who all the players in this scenario are. Because if that were to occur, and I am forced to carry out the wishes of the court, I want the absolute best possible vendor for Pope County in such an outcome.
Critics of Cross take this to signal the fix is in. In due course, courts will essentially mandate a casino permitting process. He says he wants to perform "due diligence to continue an open dialogue with all potential vendors should I be faced with ultimately having to select one."

At the moment, the Cherokees appear to be in the lead.

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