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Could votes shut Oaklawn and Southland casinos?

<p>Steve Brawner</p>

Steve Brawner

If voters allow a group to build gambling operations in four counties, could that legally put Oaklawn Park and Southland Park out of the casino business? According to a spokesman for the attorney general, “A court would have to decide.”

As of this writing, Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues has submitted enough signatures to be on the ballot. The proposal would let it operate four casinos – one each in Pulaski, Crittenden, Miller and Franklin counties.

The proposal creates a constitutional monopoly with language clearly prohibiting casino gaming operations anywhere else in Arkansas. It says nothing about granting an exception to the operations that already exist at Oaklawn and Southland.

According to Aaron Sadler, the attorney general’s spokesman, straightening out what happens to the tracks’ existing casinos would require a court case – either before or after the election. That means the two tracks will be lawyering up to defeat the measure in court at the same time they are funding political campaigns to beat it at the ballot box.

The tracks added the casinos after the Legislature in 2005 authorized each to hold local elections allowing them to offer “electronic games of skill” – since, you know, the Arkansas Constitution says casino gambling is illegal. The Legislature did that because both tracks were losing big-time business to the real casinos in other states.

If the Nancy Todd proposal passes, then the tracks might claim they aren’t really casinos and never have been. They just offer electronic games of skill.

That’s going to be a hard case to make. Their games are the video versions of what’s available in other casinos – video blackjack, video horse racing, games that look a lot like slot machines. Oaklawn currently is hosting the Arkansas Poker Championships. Video, of course.

Meanwhile, both tracks clearly have gone all-in on gaming. While Oaklawn’s racing season lasts from January to April and Southland’s from April to October, their casinos – or whatever you want to call them – are open year-round. Southland, which calls itself “Southland Park Gaming & Racing,” is not even trying to pretend it’s still mostly a race track. Its casino is open 24 hours a day and never closes except Christmas Day.

They’ve gotten by with this because no one has had enough of an incentive or enough money to challenge them. The state has cut the tracks a lot of slack because they clearly need the casinos to compete – in at least Southland’s case, to stay open. A lot of jobs have been at stake.

I’m thinking, however, that if the Nancy Todd group is going to all this trouble to write itself a constitutional monopoly, then it will go to court in order to have an actual monopoly. Plus, now that jobs lost at Oaklawn and Southland would simply be transferred to the nearby voter-approved casinos, state regulators would have less of an incentive to look the other way.

Let’s be clear: This is a long way from happening. Another casino proposal has already been declared invalid because backers did not collect enough signatures in enough counties. Nancy Todd’s group cleared the required 78,133 signatures with not much room to spare, but no doubt some signatures will be declared invalid. If the numbers drop below the threshold, the group will have 30 days to collect more.

After that, someone will sue to get the measure thrown off the ballot for one reason or another. That happens a lot in Arkansas, often successfully.

If it crosses that hurdle, then the voters statewide would have to approve casino gambling. They’ve never done that.

If they did, then you’d see a fight for survival in court.

Of course, the free market probably would make a lot of this legal mumbo-jumbo moot. The “sort-of” casinos at Oaklawn and Southland would struggle against Nancy Todd’s real ones.

Well, Oaklawn’s might have a shot because the closest would be in Pulaski County. Also, its racing business probably would survive because it’s a nationally known institution in a tourist destination.

But Southland? I don’t see people betting on greyhounds when they can go to a fancy new casino – the only one still open in town.

Steve Brawner is a Bryant journalist whose blog, Independent Arkansas, is linked at arkansasnews.com. E-mail him at brawnersteve@mac.com.

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