Columns » Ernest Dumas

Hedging their bets

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Soon, unless the Arkansas Supreme Court has a different notion, casinos will be running wide open in Arkansas for the first time in nearly 40 years, since Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller’s troopers set fire to contraband slots at Hot Springs and the casinos turned into wax museums and supper clubs.

The state Racing Commission was prepared this week to give racetrack owners at Hot Springs and West Memphis clearance to install 1,000 gambling machines at each of their tracks and run them around the clock and year round. That will be the maximum number of machines for now, but as far as the law is concerned the sky is the limit.

It just goes to show what can be done even when the Constitution and the public are against you, if you can buy a little influence in the right places.

Until now, it was always presumed that the ancient constitutional ban against lotteries flatly prohibited games of chance, although it was never exactly tested. There were occasional efforts to legalize casino gambling by legislative act. Rockefeller vetoed such a bill in 1968 after assuring a few lawmakers privately that he would let it become law but before reading a harsh warning to him from the editorial page of the Arkansas Gazette, but the courts did not get to say whether slots and other casino games would run afoul of the lottery prohibition.

They probably won’t this time either. The racing franchises claim that the games will require some degree of skill, at least more than the one-arm bandits, which takes them out of the category of lotteries. Lotteries are defined narrowly as games where the outcome rests totally on fate and the strength to pull a lever or push a button.

No one is raising that question this time — a traditional gambling foe said they didn’t have the money — although the Supreme Court will soon decide whether the legislature violated the state Constitution in other ways, by turning over to private concerns that have an interest in the outcome its prerogative of determining when and how elections are conducted.

The elections at Hot Springs and West Memphis last November, in which city voters ratified the casinos, were creatures most strange. The act passed by the legislature last year gave the track owners the power to determine when the elections to determine their fate would be held and who would get to vote. They could choose either voters in the two cities or the counties, whichever they thought gave them the best chance of winning.

The gambling outfits were paying the election judges and clerks and other ballot costs, so you could argue that it was their election so they ought to hold it as they saw fit. Ordinarily, the legislature cannot give away the government’s prerogatives to private interests on matters as majestic as elections, but constitutions nowadays are themselves not such majestic things.

Public attitudes about gambling have been changing glacially in Arkansas, although no statewide election has given it a majority other than the 1956 constitutional amendment protecting pari-mutuel wagering at Hot Springs. A majority may now believe that the economic benefits of casinos — keeping our gamblers at home and channeling the profits from their profligacy to the (out-of-state) owners of our tracks and away from those of Mississippi’s casinos — but it ought to be done aboveboard, if at all, by amending the Constitution.

Act 1151 of 2005, which authorized the local gambling elections and prescribed a few vague parameters for the casinos, passed handily in the legislature. It did not hurt that in the 2004 elections, the Cella family, which owned the Hot Springs franchise, and a track official handed out 87 campaign checks to candidates for the legislature, which would be voting on the bill that winter. Nearly all of them won. Southland Greyhound Corp., which owns the West Memphis franchise, wrote 74 checks to legislative candidates and the Arkansas Greyhound Association another 30. Still other checks went to the state political parties.

Hypocrisy and deceit are never absent from gambling victories. They backfired last month on Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition, who was trounced in the lieutenant governor’s race in Georgia after he was exposed for having secretly taken millions of dollars from casinos and used Christian groups who followed him as fronts to help his buddy Jack Abramoff expand casino gambling on reservations and stifle competition.

Governor Huckabee, a Baptist minister, campaigns as a pious foe of gambling, too, but he enabled the Arkansas casino legislation. He could not sign the bill and face his religious acolytes but, unlike Rockefeller, he let it become law without his signature, which is the same thing. In Huckabee’s last race before the legislative session, the Cella family pitched in $3,000 and Southland $500 to Huckabee’s re-election campaign.

Unable to run again and collect state campaign money, Huckabee created an independent political-action fund in Virginia called Hope for America to take gifts to help him in any future political endeavor. One of the heftiest checks to the fund, according to federal records last month, was $10,000 from Southwestern Enterprises of St. Louis, a business arm of the Cella family.

If a thank-you note was attached to the check, the records don’t say.

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