Columns » Max Brantley

Avoiding radar

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I was in the crush when the House Rules Committee endorsed a gambling expansion at Oaklawn and Southland race tracks. One of the opponents pleaded for more study time. The bill had surfaced less than a week before and, with Monday’s committee approval, it was maybe 24 hours from becoming law. Limited study was the point, of course. There’s no secret to the late appearance of high-stakes legislation. Sometimes, it simply takes the lobbyists and sponsors a while to trade enough favors, pour enough liquor and do enough jawboning to produce the required votes. Sometimes, the ball of final-days confusion is useful cover. The gambling bill needed more study, though it’s not devoid of merit. The racing industry — particularly dog racing — is declining. Many tracks have added slot machines or video poker to fatten owners’ wallets and, incidentally, increase purses for “live” racing. Oaklawn and Southland are already gambling centers, so what are a few more cash intake slots? Gambling is so confusing in Arkansas that the sponsor of this bill couldn’t explain why we needed a bill to legalize more of what the tracks already have. Lotteries — games involving pure chance — are prohibited. But statutes permit pari-mutuel wagering at Oaklawn and Southland. Both tracks now have Instant Racing machines, nominally parimutuel betting on previously run races. You’ll forgive players for confusing them with slot machines. You put money in, punch a button and if the right numbers come up, money comes out. The new legislation, should local voters approve, will produce a couple thousand new machines with coin slots at Oaklawn and Southland. They’ll probably offer video poker. Poker is called a game of skill because a little knowledge is required. You wouldn’t want to discard a flush to draw to a straight, for example. A casino official from Mississippi told me that the games — which his company operates elsewhere — are set to pay off 85 to 90 percent of the time. The only skill necessary is this: If you don’t know how poker is played, you can make the odds worse by making stupid decisions. The casino official — who is fighting additional competition in Arkansas, naturally — makes worthwhile points. He says neighboring states generally take a higher tax than this bill proposes. He also notes that the right to operate a new gambling parlor has sold elsewhere for hundreds of millions of dollars. Oaklawn and Southland are going to get that monopoly right for the cost of their lobbying. Questions remain. Once the expanded gambling franchises are in place, it appears live racing could cease and the facilities could continue as slot parlors. Southland could be sold to a casino company for a vast sum. And what if the new machines introduce wagering on other forms of sports, such as NASCAR, as sponsors have mentioned? Would that be sports wagering, prohibited in Arkansas by federal law? And if electronic blackjack and poker are allowed, why not table blackjack and poker? The only difference between machine card games and table card games is that skill really can make a difference at the table. A lawsuit will be necessary to clear legal issues, plus Racing Commission meetings, local option elections, etc. Given the racing industry’s progress in the last week, I’d say slots should be jangling at Oaklawn long before a single school building is repaired with money from this year’s legislature.

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