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Gambling in the Arkansas Valley
   Notch loosened on a Bible Belt state?

By Suzi Parker

Every weekend, Arkansans head to Mississippi and Louisiana by the carloads.

    Ever since those two states legalized casino gambling in the 1990s, they have been luring people from neighboring states to glitzy 24-hour resorts with bright lights, clanging slot machines, championship golf courses and big-name entertainment.

    And a private company says it thinks Arkansans are ready to roll the dice themselves and is backing a proposed ballot initiative that would allow it to run six casinos throughout the state. It would also establish a state-run lottery and allow churches and charities to run bingo games.

    Judging from experience, the odds against legalized gambling in Arkansas seem long. Gambling groups have tried to put initiatives on the state ballot for years. Most have failed to either get enough signatures or have been successfully challenged because their wording was misleading. The few that have gotten on the ballot have failed on election day.

    Arkansas Casino Corp.'s proposal is different, though. It not only includes provisions for a state lottery and for charitable bingo, but also funding for education and tax breaks.

    The company has been gathering signatures to get the initiative on the November ballot. Corporation officials expect to present about 120,000 signatures to Attorney General Mark Pryor on Friday for verification; 70,602 are needed. "We won't have a problem this year," said Bobby May, president of Arkansas Casino. "I am confident it will be on the ballot."

    Mr. May, a former sheriff in eastern Arkansas, expects opposition from anti-gambling groups in the state, as well as from out-of-state casino groups who don't want the competition.

    The proposal has already drawn fire from Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "Arkansas would rather build its tourism around its natural, scenic beauty than around government-sponsored gambling," said Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister. "The revenues from gambling aren't worth the drain it places on the families of working people who wager their paychecks and lose."

    Mr. May also acknowledged that some would criticize his company's motives: The proposal would set up a casino gambling monopoly in six counties run by Arkansas Casino.

    "It's a win-win situation," Mr. May said. "Of course, we will make money, but the state and the people benefit, too."

    The proposal would allow casinos near six cities - Texarkana, Little Rock, Harrison, Fort Smith, West Memphis and Hot Springs. Mr. May said the casinos would employ 15,000 to 25,000 people within a year in "well-paying jobs."

    The initiative would establish a state gambling commission to oversee operations at the casinos, create a state lottery and allow charitable bingo.

    Modeled after the HOPE scholarship program in Georgia, the initiative would set aside at least 45 percent of lottery revenue to fund a scholarship program for all high school graduates in Arkansas. The funds would also be used to expand pre-kindergarten educational programs.

    The initiative mandates that 12 percent of net casino revenue would be paid to the state's general fund so that the state's grocery sales tax could be reduced or eliminated; 1 percent would establish a foundation for the treatment and prevention of gambling addiction.

    Arkansas Casino has worked the last few years to get gambling on the ballot. In 1998, the group's campaign failed when it didn't collect enough signatures in time to meet the attorney general's deadline.

    Opponents of gambling initiatives have successfully challenged them on the grounds that the ballot titles were misleading. Last year, the Arkansas General Assembly passed an act to eliminate such lawsuits. The Supreme Court now certifies ballots before a single signature is collected.

    Mr. May said he expects other challenges. He said it is more than likely that someone will challenge the validity of the petition's signatures and file a lawsuit. He said he also expects Mississippi casino interests to get involved in the Arkansas campaign.

    According to Mississippi Gaming Association statistics, Arkansans spend about $300 million a year in casinos.

    "What you will see will be casinos pouring money into anti-gambling groups," said Mr. May. "It's ironic, but these special interest groups who are against gambling will take money from the casinos to fight us."

    Oaklawn Park, the state's only horse track, saw that happen in 1998 when it sponsored an initiative for casino gambling, said Terry Wallace, Oaklawn's media relations director.

    "We got crushed when we backed the amendment in 1998," Mr. Wallace said. "The casinos from Mississippi will bank together and create a PAC [political action committee]. No one has the money to fight them, and it takes the pressure off the church groups who oppose it."

    Mr. Wallace said the climate in Arkansas hasn't changed in two years and that gambling doesn't have "any better chance now than then."

    Arkansas allows pari-mutuel betting at two racetracks: Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis.

    Casino gambling has long been controversial in Arkansas. During the 1950s and 1960s, gangsters along with the rich and famous partied in Hot Springs, which thrived because of gambling. But in the late 1960s, Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut it down.

This story first appeared in The Dallas Morning News
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