Arkansas Casino Campaign to Repeal Pope County License Submits Signatures

A group in Arkansas that wants to ask state voters to repeal a lone commercial gaming license earmarked for Pope County claims it has secured enough resident signatures to force a ballot referendum on the ongoing quarrel.

Volunteers of “Fair Play for Arkansas 2022” submit resident signatures to the state on July 8, 2022. The group wants to re-ask state voters about whether they support allowing a casino to be built in Pope County. (Image: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

“Fair Play for Arkansas 2022” argues that Pope County residents do not want a casino, and that a 2018 amendment to the Arkansas Constitution unfairly forces a gaming project on them. Last Friday was the state deadline for political committees seeking to place a referendum question on the 2022 ballot to submit signatures.

In 2022, a group must obtain at least 89,151 signatures from registered voters to force a referendum. Fair Play says they submitted more than 103,000 signatures on Friday.

The Arkansas Secretary of State must still validate the signatures and then approve the group’s proposed referendum title, wording, and language. Current Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) had a long track record of rejecting gaming referendums on various legalities until her office allowed the 2018 motion to go to the election booths.

Complicated Backstory

Arkansas voters in 2018 approved amending the state constitution to permit one casino each in the counties of Pope, Jefferson, Garland, and Crittenden. The measure was largely funded by the Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), a wholly owned conglomerate of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and the Downstream Development Authority of the Quapaw Tribe, also of Oklahoma.

In exchange for leading and funding the fight to bring casinos and new jobs and tax revenue to the state, local officials in Jefferson agreed to partner with the Quapaw Tribe for its casino opportunity. The initiative also allowed two former racino venues, Oaklawn and Southland — respectively in the counties of Garland and Crittenden — to transition into full-fledged casinos with Vegas-style slot machines and table games.

Delaware North, a gaming and hospitality giant based in New York, was also a major financier of the 2018 referendum. Delaware North operates Southland Casino Racing.

CNB had a handshake agreement in place with Pope County leaders. That drove the tribal entity into pouring more than $2.2 million in cash contributions into the ballot effort. But after an election overhauled the county’s governance, and the support for giving CNB the county’s casino development opportunity waned, chaos ensued.

Cherokee Nation Wins License

The 2018 gaming authorization requires the two entirely new casinos in Pope and Jefferson to submit their gaming bids to the Arkansas Racing Commission. It must be accompanied by a letter of support from the sitting county judge. In 2018, then-Pope County Judge Tim Fox said he would support the county partnering with CNB to build a casino if the referendum passed.

But Fox left office soon after the 2018 election. His successor, Pope County Judge Ben Cross, subsequently opposed the CNB casino plan. Cross took issue with allegations of collusion between Fox and CNB during the referendum campaign. With local Pope County voters rejecting the referendum, the judge refused to write a letter of support for the casino.

Of Arkansas’ 74 counties, only 11 voted against the 2018 gaming referendum. One such county was Pope where nearly 61% of the vote went against the casino question.

A competitive bidding process ensued, with CNB battling a casino bid from a Mississippi-based entity called Gulfside Casino Partnership.

The Arkansas Racing Commission further clouded things when one of its commissioners, Butch Rice, was found to have had a bias in reviewing the competing proposals. Rutledge’s office eventually intervened, and CNB was at long last deemed the rightful recipient of Pope County’s gaming project last November.

The lengthy delay, however, gave “Fair Play for Arkansas” adequate time to rally a fight.

Fair Play says the state should respect the wishes of the Pope people. But since the 2018 referendum wrote Pope County into the Arkansas Constitution as a permitted casino zone, the only way to fully make sure a casino doesn’t come to the region is by passing a separate referendum repealing Pope’s candidacy.

In the coming weeks, Rutledge’s office will determine if Fair Play submitted enough qualifying signatures to force a referendum, and if the group’s ballot language is appropriate for placement.

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