The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that votes cast in November on a proposed casino legalization ballot initiative should be counted, dismissing two lawsuits which sought to block the count because of claims the wording is misleading and ambiguous in several areas.
In two rulings, Arkansas’ highest court said the proposal’s text was clear and did not mislead voters.
The proposed amendment, known as Issue 4, would allow the Arkansas Racing Commission to issue casino licenses at a Hot Springs horse track and at a West Memphis dog track, both of which currently offer electronic gambling. It also would legalize casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties.
The lawsuits, one of which was filed by Pine Bluff pastor Derick Easter, claimed that many parts of both the ballot title and the ballot text are ambiguous or unclear and had asked for votes not to be counted. For example, one lawsuit argued the ballot text misleads voters “as to whether local officials can approve casinos” and whether citizens “lose oversight of unlimited free alcohol.”
The other lawsuit also raises multiple issues, saying in part the ballot title makes it seem that four casino licenses must be issued, “leaving no room for the Arkansas Racing Commission to decline.”
The court disagreed on nearly every count, writing that, “the popular name and ballot title of Issue No. 4 give voters a fair understanding of the issues presented and the scope and significance of the proposed changes in the law.” The court said voters should be able to make an intelligent and informed decision based on the text.
Justice Jo Hart dissented in part from one ruling, saying the language was misleading enough to strike the issue from the ballot.
The group behind the measure, Driving Arkansas Forward, said it was “grateful” for the court’s decision.
“We are confident Arkansans will vote to keep casino entertainment dollars in our state when they cast their ballots,” said Nate Steel, counsel for the group.
Christopher Burks, lawyer for Citizens for Local Choice which challenged the amendment in one suit, said the ruling was disappointing because he believed the court mischaracterized arguments against casinos. He said it’s now up to local and state voters to reject the casino amendment.
“It’s unfortunate the Supreme Court reached an outcome favored by rich folks and lobbyists, but we’re confident that the people of Arkansas will make a decision in their best interest,” Burks said.
Two Native American tribes in Oklahoma have each donated more than $1 million to the pro-casino campaign, which has blanketed the state with television ads touting the potential benefits of the expanded gambling initiative.
John L. Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation, which has promised to build a casino in the City of Pine Bluff if the amendment passes in November, spoke at a political forum held earlier this week. Also at the event was Go Forward Pine Bluff CEO Ryan Watley, who is for the amendment, and attorney Anna Stiritz, a Pope County volunteer, and lobbyist David L. Colbert, who are both working against the measure.
Watley said whether the amendment passes or fails, the city has to continue to work together to grow its communities and invest in job creation and quality of life, but if it passes he wants the investment to stay in Jefferson County and the city must work to ensure that there is a partnership in place so that it will reap the benefits of the investment.
According to Watley, if Issue 4 passes, the city will receive $6 million in taxes, up to $6 million to the county, and the average wage at the casino will be $30,000 plus benefits.
“When it comes to the casino we look at it as an investment in the jobs that it’s going to create,” he said. “If this passes, I will not want this type of investment going to a nearby community. We need such an investment in Jefferson County just based on the numbers alone — financial numbers of the investment in our current revenue situation with the county and the city. We need this type of job creation and tax revenue and all the other incentives that come along with this type of investment.”
Watley said the way to ensure that the money stays in Pine Bluff is by using local subcontractors who are trained and ready to work.
“What we did with GFPB is started a construction trade alliance where we have seen some fruits of the initiative and have been able to retain jobs by getting local subcontractors involved in different projects,” Watley said.
“We must work now to begin introducing some of the qualified workforce to the chief and his team and begin preparing others to participate in these projects. That’s how we begin to prepare ourselves pass or fail to be able to succeed in the future because this will not be the only construction plan in the city.”
Berrey said it’s always better to use local contractors, but it all depends on capacity.
“At the end of the day you want to build a really nice facility where you don’t have uncontrolled costs, but I’ve already talked to the mayor at length about how do we facilitate the local contractors to be able to stand up and help us with endeavor, and I think the opportunity is there, we just need to find out who they are and how we can have conversations with them,” Berrey said.
“But I don’t know if there’s a large sheetrock company that can meet our timetable. I don’t know, but we do want our local contract to give priority to the local people.”
Watley said there are 144 subcontractors listed on GFPB’s construction trade alliance and that number is growing.
Colbert challenged Berrey to consider the social and economic losses that occur within a city due to casino gambling.
“Since the lottery passed in 2008 there have been a hundred opportunities for this state to take action to address the fastest growing addiction amongst kids in America, which is gambling,” Colbert said. “I am not against gambling I’ve worked other campaigns to expand it. The casino measures are in a bad place in some sense because the state government and others have done nothing to address addiction. Anyone that travels the state and goes to a gambling facility be it lottery or casino recognizes that our state like any other does, in fact, have a number of people with addiction problems that are mental health based”
Before allowing questions from the audience, Brown asked Berrey to address the social issues surrounding Native American-owned casinos.
“We haven’t seen a rise in divorce rate, we haven’t seen a rise in bankruptcy, we have not seen the negative impact that is spoken in our region. We’re different. We’re not a shareholder corporation that takes all of our money to Delaware. We’re a tribal government that’s about developing communities,” Berrey said.
Pine Bluff Alderman Steven Mays questioned whether the casino would be in Pine Bluff or within two miles of the city as the amendment states. Stiritz’s responded, “what it says is what is says. There’s no guarantee it’ll be inside the city limits.”
However, Berrey assured that the casino would be located within the city.
“You have to have a city services to have a resort facility,” Berrey said. “You have to have sewer you have to water, you have to have emergency preparedness, and if we’re lucky enough to have this amendment pass and be chosen by the mayor and the quorum court, the land that we contemplate is within the city limits and any part of it that’s not will be annexed into it voluntarily. This is about enhancing the community.”
The question was posed to Berrey whether any money was being put back into the community for the youth, such as the youth facility. He said whether the amendment passes or not he still plans to invest in the city.
“I talked to the mayor about that today,” Berrey said. “We’re going to look at some of the neighborhoods and see if there’s a way we can create some entertainment for kids outside of playing candy crush and getting addicted. The Quapaw’s are coming home and apart of that is to help the youth.”
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington gave the closing remarks, saying that the pros outweigh the cons for casino gambling in Pine Bluff.
“When I go to the polls, I probably will vote for it because of the economic impact,” Washington said. “What I have learned over the last year since we’ve discussed this, I’ve met with the mayor in Bossier City, Louisiana, (and) Shreveport, Louisiana, and I can name other cities where they have casinos and every one of them have told me that the positive benefits outweigh the negative and that crime has not gone up very much, addictions have not grown up very much.”
State Rep. Vivian Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) said she’s still deciding on how she’s going to vote.
“I have to do my due diligence to ask the questions that no one else is asking. Coming across my desk as just a bill I wouldn’t be just looking at commercials, reading, and listening to what my friends and family say,” Flowers said. “I would be looking at research, looking at the data, looking at all of the negative things so the questions can be asked on the front end because on the back end oftentimes it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Officials in two communities not that far from Pine Bluff that have casinos consider their towns to have a better quality of life as a result.
Greenville, Mississippi, is home to a Harlow’s Casino Resort & Spa and a Trop Casino Greenville. Located 103 miles southeast of Pine Bluff, across the Mississippi River from Chicot County, Arkansas, Greenville has a population of 31,500 residents. It is the largest town in Washington County, which has a population of 47,300.
Cary Karlson is the executive director of the Washington County, Mississippi, Economic Alliance. He said the casinos have improved his community through providing jobs, economic activity and increased tax revenues and that they have not hurt existing businesses.
“Both casinos serve different markets,” Karlson said. “Harlow’s serves more people from Louisiana and Arkansas. The Trop casino brings in more local people.”
Harlows employed 429 people, and the Trop Casino employed 288 people as of last year, he said. A combined total of 717 jobs would not exist without those two casinos, Karlson said.
“What has hurt is China and the (North American Free Trade Agreement) taking jobs,” Karlson said. “We have been working to rebuild our workforce with our remaining companies.”
Karlson said that both Harlow’s Casino Resort & Spa and the Trop Casino have made significant financial investments in their facilities through adding restaurants and an event center. Those casinos have generated tax revenue that goes to the Washington County government and to the Greenville School District, he said.
Karlson declined to comment on how Pine Bluff might be impacted if the Quapaw tribe opens a casino there.
“It is not fair for me to give an opinion on what’s going to happen in another community,” Karlson said.
Miami, Oklahoma, is home to the Buffalo Run Casino, High Winds Casino, Prairie Moon Casino, Prairie Sun Casino, the Quapaw Casino and the Stables Casino. Miami has a population of 13,500 residents and is 324 miles northwest of Pine Bluff.
Miami Oklahoma Mayor Rudy Schultz welcomes these casinos, saying they provide above-average pay and excellent benefits for employees.
“The health benefits, in particular, are important because they result in increased utilization of our local rural hospital, which struggles like all rural hospitals,” Schultz said via email. “The casinos have also been generous supporters of our local schools. I am not personally or generally aware of any significant problems related to the casinos.”
Steve Gilbert is the president and CEO of the Miami, Oklahoma, Chamber of Commerce. He said that Ottawa County, Oklahoma, “enjoys the fact that we are made up of the historic boundaries of 10 sovereign Indian tribes.”
“Each tribal government provides a wide-range of programs and services to tribal members and their families,” Gilbert said via email.
“In addition, many tribes here have diversified and sophisticated business enterprises that they operate, including gaming, but much, much more. For the Quapaw Tribe, this is especially true. Due to our local tribal governments, the citizens of Miami and Ottawa County, and the region, enjoy good jobs with benefits, and tribal enterprises have a significant and positive economic impact on our local economy. In Miami, Oklahoma, we are committed to collaboration and partnerships with our local Tribal governments.”