Columns » John Brummett

Business vs. religionin Fort Smith

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I’m always intrigued when the two dominant forces of modern American conservatism — the business vote and the Jesus vote — get off the same page, as appears to be happening in Fort Smith.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Whether the United Keetowah Band of Cherokee Indians gets eventual approval from the federal government to build a casino on Fort Smith’s riverfront on acreage bought from a Fort Smith businessman — that’s a probably remote prospect that is wholly and exclusively the business of the federal government, the tribe and the people of Fort Smith.

I learned my lesson about sticking my nose into Fort Smith’s affairs from far-away Little Rock when I merely wondered aloud why the state of Arkansas should have to pay for what was supposed to be a federal marshal’s museum.

Now, to today’s issue:

The Fort Smith conservative business establishment, by which I mean the chamber of commerce and the advertising and promotion office and the editorials of the Times Record, endorses this casino. That’s because business conservatism is about making money and sense.

There are practicalities, you see. There’s a casino only yards west of Fort Smith on the other side of the Arkansas River, in Oklahoma. There’s another casino a couple of miles down the road, then another and another.

The Fort Smith business establishment says the city can’t declare itself righteous and pure on gambling considering the abundance of Arkansas license plates on the parking lots of the casinos just over the water. It says that when gambling is so much an intimate part of you already, it’s foolhardy to adhere to boundaries that are pointless except to deny yourself profit.

This Indian tribe would not pay state and local taxes. But the tribe has said it would take 15 percent of net profits and parcel them to the city and state. And, for the record, this casino, if approved, would be constrained by Arkansas law. It could do no more than Oaklawn and Southland, which is offer devices that are preposterously defined as “skill.”

Religious conservatives say this lucre is filthy and that Oklahoma’s bringing it to your doorstep is no reason to welcome it into your living room. If Oklahoma jumped off the Arkansas River bridge, should Arkansas? Yield not to temptation, they say.

Both sides claim popular support. The business establishment says polls show the casino favored locally. The religious folks counter that statewide issues to legalize casinos have been voted down overwhelmingly in recent years.

I would merely explain that the rejected casino proposals were creepy ones in which brazen characters were trying to set themselves up as the gambling monopolists of Arkansas.

The state’s leading conservative Democrat, Gov. Mike Beebe, got asked his opinion the other day. By one set of rules applied in such cases, the governor’s position is influential at least and perhaps decisive.

Would Beebe go with his natural constituency, the business conservatives, or his unnatural ones, the religious conservatives — unnatural, I mean, on account of his being Episcopalian. I do not associate Episcopalians with conservatism. Maybe that’s only because an Episcopalian buddy told me the other night that he does his best to keep the Ten Suggestions.

Beebe, as good a political straddler as I’ve seen, went with the religious conservatives, but gave a business reason. Slick. He said it was because government wouldn’t get a fair tax take, only a scant voluntary offering.

If that still poses a problem for him, he knows he can make it up to the business conservatives when he releases a million or three from the convenient surplus for that marshal’s museum.

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