LITTLE ROCK — Former Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday he opposes a ballot issue that would allow casinos to operate in three Arkansas counties.
The group backing the proposal said Beebe’s position was no surprise because his employer has connections to a racetrack, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming in Hot Springs, that is helping to fund opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment to allow casinos to operate in Washington, Boone and Miller counties.
In a statement released Wednesday by the anti-casino group Protect Arkansas Values — Stop Casinos Now, Beebe said Issue 5 would deny communities local control.
“Traditionally, local communities have the right to vote on whether or not they have liquor sales in their community. This amendment would deny our cities, towns and communities the ability to decide for themselves what kind of community they want to live in. This loss of local control is why I am opposed to this amendment and would encourage voters to vote no on Issue 5,” Beebe said in the statement.
Robert Coon, spokesman for pro-casino group Arkansas Wins in 2016, pointed out in response that Beebe is employed by the Roberts Law Firm, which is part of Roberts Group, a conglomerate that also includes a lobbying firm, Roberts GA Strategies, that lobbies for Oaklawn. Oaklawn and Southland Park Gaming and Racing in West Memphis are funding the anti-casino group.
“It is no surprise that this front group for Oaklawn and Southland has elicited support from a former elected official whose firm has financial ties to Oaklawn,” Coon said. “This group continues to mislead voters about Issue 5, and is being dishonest about their real motivations. Oaklawn and Southland will stop at nothing to protect their profits over the best interests of Arkansans. Opinions differ on this issue, which is one reason the framers gave the people a process by which they can directly amend the Arkansas Constitution.”
Joel Coon, no relation, spokesman for the anti-casino group, said the former Democratic governor does not do any legal or lobbying work for Oaklawn. He noted that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson also opposes Issue 5.
“As a former Governor, (Beebe) is deeply concerned that this amendment denies communities local control and the right to vote on whether or not they want a casino and 24-hour liquor sales. That is why he agrees with Gov. Hutchinson and is joining what is now over 50 legislators who feel that this is a bad deal for Arkansas,” he said.
Beebe also opposed efforts to allow casinos to operate in Arkansas while he was governor.
Arkansas’ constitution prohibits gambling houses and devices, although Oaklawn and Southland are allowed under state law to operate electronic “games of skill” with the approval of the local communities.
The anti-casino group has filed a lawsuit asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to strike Issue 5 from the ballot, alleging that its ballot title is misleading and does not adequately explain the measure and that supporters did not follow all state laws governing the use of paid canvassers.
The election will be Nov. 8.