LITTLE ROCK — In 1996, a conservative anti-gambling group led a successful campaign to defeat a ballot item to authorize a state lottery and casinos in Arkansas. Sixty-one percent of voters cast ballots against the measure.
When nearly 64 percent of voters rejected a proposal to establish casinos, a state lottery and charity bingo four years later, Larry Page of the Arkansas Committee for Ethics Policy suggested the 2000 vote could put a "final nail in the coffin" for future efforts to expand gambling beyond horse racing and dog racing in the state.
But in the past 12 years, Arkansas voters have approved charity bingo and raffles and a statewide lottery, while local voters have approved adding casino-style electronic games of skill to pari-mutuel wagering at Oaklawn Park thoroughbred track in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis.
As the state Supreme Court considers legal challenges to two casino initiatives proposed for the November general election, Page said last week that quasi-campaigns are under way to oppose the measures if they make it to the ballot.
"We’ve already started the rudimentary parts of (the campaign) … we’ve let our people know, given them some basic information and we’re waiting to see which one we will really need to focus on," said Page, now spokesman for the Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values.
One proposal would allow Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues LLC to operate casinos in four Arkansas counties. The other would allow Arkansas Hotels and Entertainment Inc. to operate casinos in seven counties. Both have been disqualified by Secretary of State Mark Martin, though both will appear on the November ballot because the sponsors appealed Martin’s ruling to the state Supreme Court.
The high court has heard arguments in both cases over the past two weeks but has not ruled. If the court affirms Martin’s rulings, it could order that votes for the measures not be counted.
Meanwhile, Page said that despite softening attitudes about gambling in Arkansas for reputable causes or in isolated cases, he believes Arkansans still draw the line at allowing casino monopolies to operate in the state.
As in other states, "I think … people got more acclimated to gambling, probably fewer people, perhaps, perceived it as a vice and there was just more acceptance. We still have folks opposed and folks who want it defeated, but I think there is more a acceptance of it," Page said.
"Of course, with the lottery the scholarships were a really good public marketing tool for that … and with bingo it was nonprofits," Page said, noting also that the two tracks were able to expand their gaming operations because the elections occurred only in the cities where the tracks are located.
"With the two casino proposals there is no significant money going to a public purpose," he said. "And both of those before us today are like the one in 2000, unregulated monopolies. Arkansans are not going to give someone an unregulated monopoly on casino gambling. I just don’t think they are prepared to do that. They weren’t in 2000 and I don’t think they are now."
Glen Hooks, who in 2000 was spokesman for Arkansas Casino Corp., sponsor of the ill-fated gambling and lottery proposal, said last week that supporters of the two ballot proposals now before the Supreme Court will have obstacles other than Page and his group if they do qualify for the ballot.
"They haven’t really gotten a good start on their actual campaign," Hooks said. "They’ve been tied up with signature gathering, they’ve been tied up with this court fight, they’ve been tied up with the ballot title, and all those things are mounting to a distraction that has really … kept them from running a really robust, pro casino campaign."
Hooks said not sure that Page’s group and other vocal opponents over the years should get all the credit for stopping casino gambling, but like Page he said Arkansans might not be ready for casinos.
"I think it’s more about the people of Arkansas just not being ready for casinos, and these campaigns just not being able to amount a full offensive because they’re distracted by these court fights," he said.