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Competing casino proposals vie for ballot

by Associated Press | July 11, 2012 at 11:08 p.m. | Updated July 8, 2015 at 9:17 a.m.

LITTLE ROCK-Arkansas voters could face two separate proposals this fall to give private businesses a monopoly on casino gambling in parts of the state, but only one can be enacted under the state constitution since they're conflicting measures.

Election officials are going through thousands of petitions turned in to determine whether they'll qualify for the November ballot, but supporters and opponents of the casino measures are already honing their strategies for the fall. It's a campaign that could pit the casino supporters not just against churches and other anti-gambling groups, but against each other.

Professional poker player Nancy Todd and Texas businessman Michael Wasserman last week submitted petitions for separate constitutional amendments that would allow casinos in the state. Todd's proposal would give her exclusive rights to operate casinos in four counties, while Wasserman's would give him the exclusive right to operate in seven counties.

The proposals are in conflict, since both would prohibit casino gaming at any other locations. If both make it onto the ballot and are approved by voters, only the one that receives the most votes can be enacted since the measures are competing, according to a provision of Arkansas' constitution.

Some gambling opponents welcome the possibility of two competing casino measures.

"It makes it easier for us because I think in the minds of the voters many of them will say that's going too far and we don't need that much gambling in Arkansas," said Jerry Cox, president of the conservative Arkansas Family Council, which plans on campaigning against the measures if they reach the ballot.

Arkansas is a Bible Belt state that has opposed past efforts to legalize casinos, but other forms of gambling have trickled into the state in recent years. A dog track in West Memphis and a horse track in Hot Springs allow wagering and added electronic "games of skill" such as video poker in 2006. The state legalized charitable bingo and raffles in 2006 and has been selling lottery tickets to raise money for college scholarships since 2009.

Even before the casino proposals were submitted, they faced significant opposition. A campaign bankrolled by the company that owns Southland Gaming and Racing, the West Memphis dog track, sent thousands of direct mail pieces and flew a banner over a Little Rock music festival urging Arkansas voters to not sign petitions.

Todd said the competing proposals don't change her campaign strategy, but that there's a clear contrast between the types of establishments the two proposals would offer.

"I'm looking at entertainment mega resort facilities and he's looking at Margaritavilles," Todd said.

Wasserman, however, said his establishments would offer a wider variety of games, noting that Todd's amendment refers to her business as "Nancy Todd's Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues."

"Everybody I've spoken to has responded back with, 'We don't care anything about poker. We want a casino,"' Wasserman said.

It could be up to a month or maybe longer before Todd or Wasserman find out if their amendments will make the ballot. The state has up to 30 days to verify that the signatures they turned in came from registered voters in Arkansas. Supporters of constitutional amendments must turn in signatures from at least 78,133 registered voters to qualify for the ballot.

If they fall short, each would have up to 30 days to gather additional signatures.

But both proposals could face additional challenges. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who cleared the way for supporters to gather signatures by certifying the measures, said Tuesday he has serious concerns about both and added they could face legal questions that would keep them from making it onto the ballot.

"These measures would in our constitution give one person, by name, exclusive rights to control the licenses for a billion-dollar industry for 99 years," McDaniel said. "We wouldn't elect a governor for 99 years."

McDaniel also said he believed the measures could potentially shut down operations at the horse and dog tracks, since neither proposal includes specific exemptions for gambling at the two facilities.

"That's something that voters need to be concerned about," he said.

Todd and Wasserman said their intention isn't to affect operations at either track. Wasserman, however, left open the possibility that his proposal could affect the tracks' ability to offer games such as video poker.

"Are they casinos or not?" Wasserman said.


Andrew DeMillo can be reached at


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