Voters in Tuesday's primaries probably noticed a different kind of campaign going on not too far from the voting booth.
Voters in Tuesday’s primaries probably noticed a different kind of campaign going on not too far from the voting booth.
Several groups were trying to gather signatures to qualify their ballot measures for the November ballot in Arkansas. This year, there is a twist — an organized, well-funded campaign to discourage people from signing petitions.
The campaigns receiving the most attention and the most money are opposed to initiatives to raise the severance tax on natural gas and two constitutional amendments to expand casino-style gambling.
The proposal to increase the severance tax is led by a former gas company executive and Republican candidate for governor, Sheffield Nelson. It would increase the severance tax from between 1.25 percent to 5 percent up to a flat 7 percent while eliminating most of the deductions. Gov. Mike Beebe has announced his personal opposition.
The group against the measure – Arkansans for Jobs and Affordable Energy – is funded largely by the state chamber of commerce and gas companies that would see their taxes rise if the measure is passed. They have joined some conservative anti-tax group to launch a campaign aimed at discouraging voters from signing petitions to get the measure on the ballot. To be certified, Nelson’s group has to collect more than 62,000 signatures of registered voters by July.
A similar battle is going on with two proposed constitutional amendments to grant casino monopolies to out-of-state interests. Michael Wasserman of Texas is not new to Arkansas; he’s trying his luck again to create a casino monopoly in seven counties.
This year a professional poker player from Las Vegas — Nancy Todd — has dealt herself into the game with a proposal to build a Poker Palace in four counties.
Since these two proposals would require amending the state constitution, which prohibits gambling except when it doesn’t, which I’ll get to in a minute, they must collect more than 78,000 signatures by July.
One of the groups opposing the casino amendments — Stop Casinos Now— has considerable funding from an interested source, the owner of Southland Park, a greyhound racing venue in West Memphis.
As mentioned, the state constitution prohibits gambling with two exceptions carved out by the recently passed charitable bingo amendment and the amendment to allow others forms of gambling at horse-racing venues that already offer pari-mutuel wagering, which was exclusive to Oaklawn in Hot Springs. A court ruling extended the exclusion to venues offering pari-mutuel wagers at greyhound tracks — Southland Park.
For decades, the exceptions for horse and dog racing were pretty limited. There were just so many races each day. Then the tracks began to get more creative to compete with the booming casino business just over state borders. First, they began simulcast wagers on races at tracks around the country. Then, they developed something called instant racing machines that allow wagers on races already run. The machines, operating much like a slot machine but with some limitations, were never considered full casino-style gambling.
In 2005, the state Legislature passed a law that turned both Oaklawn and Southland into Arkansas’ only two legalized casinos. The bill that allowed both the cities of Hot Springs and West Memphis to legalize something called electronic games of skill passed a well-greased state Legislature before opposition had time to notice.
The operations have turned into major businesses with wagers coming in just under a billion dollars in the first four months of this year. It is no wonder these casinos don’t want any competition.
There is other opposition to more casinos. A faith-based Coalition to Preserve Arkansas Values is made up of several of the state’s leading social conservative groups that oppose the gambling proposals based primarily on moral grounds. Their objectives are mostly the same, except their opposition is based in the belief that the expansion of gambling is bad for the state instead of being motivated by profit.
Both do-not-sign campaigns are interesting because, although there have been some efforts to discourage signing petitions previously, these are well-orchestrated and well-funded efforts.
Both campaigns actually send sensible messages. So, for those who don’t want to see more casinos spring up around the state or see jobs disappear as gas companies pull back on their operations as a result of higher taxes, here’s hoping they politely told petition gatherers, “No thanks.”
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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.