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Gambling proposals should get attention of state chamber

<p>Roy Ockert</p>

Roy Ockert

Various organizations have been waging campaigns over the past few months to refer proposals to expand gambling in Arkansas significantly, to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, to take tax money away from the state Game and Fish Commission, to increase the natural gas severance tax and to force higher ethical standards on lawmakers.

So which one has drawn the most fire (and money) from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce?

The natural gas severance tax. A committee, Arkansans for Jobs and Affordable Energy, backed by the state chamber and natural gas companies, has raised and spent more than $1 million campaigning against it and it isn’t officially on the ballot yet.

An organization led by former natural gas company executive Sheffield Nelson on Friday turned in petitions bearing 69,717 signatures, some 7,000 more than needed. The secretary of state’s office now will determine whether enough of the signatures are valid. If the number falls short, supporters will have an additional 30 days to get the number up to the minimum of 62,507 required, which means it is likely to win a spot on the ballot and an even more expensive battle likely will be waged on the issue between now and the Nov. 6 general election.

The state chamber should consider spending the majority of its money and effort fighting other initiatives that could be on the ballot, especially the two gambling amendments.

The chamber should not assume the gambling proposals won’t pass without informed opposition (see Arkansas lottery amendment, 2008). One amendment would allow Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues LLC to establish and operate four casinos — one each in Pulaski, Miller, Franklin and Crittenden counties.

Todd turned in petitions bearing about 2,000 more signatures than needed to make the ballot.

The other proposed amendment would allow Gainesville, Texas, businessman Michael Wasserman to establish and operate seven casinos — one each in Sebastian, Pulaski, Garland, Miller, Crittenden, Boone and Jefferson counties. Many people in some of those counties could be convinced that casinos would help them overcome bad economic times.

Wasserman’s organization turned in about 5,500 more signatures than needed.

While current Arkansas law allows for gambling on thoroughbred horse racing in Hot Springs and dog racing in West Memphis, along with some gambling on electronic devices at those facilities, these two proposals would bring standard casino gambling to Arkansas and, unlike the lottery amendment, would prohibit the state Legislature from regulating them.

Each proposal specifies and limits certain taxes on gaming proceeds, but the primary beneficiaries would be the casino owners. Does anyone think that would be good for Arkansas?

The medical marijuana proposal would appear, at least on the surface, to be less harmful, but it would legalize for limited purposes, with regulations, a drug that can’t legally be produced, distributed or used under federal laws.

Supporters turned in some 5,500 more signatures than needed so it also appears likely to make the ballot.

The other most controversial proposal, which would have tightened ethics rules on lawmakers, won’t make it. Supporters failed to gather the necessary 62,507 signatures.

That’s a shame because we’ve seen many reasons for tightening the rules on campaigning, lobbying and expenses over the past year or so. Helping the sponsoring organizations, Regnat Populus 2012 and the Better Ethics Now Committee, gather enough signatures would have been a worthwhile project for the state chamber.

Proponents promised to turn their attention to getting something passed in the General Assembly next year, but they’re not likely to get much support. Better to get an earlier start on an initiative in 2014.

Fortunately, the campaign for reducing the G&F tax also failed.

You can see any of these proposals, along with those submitted by the Legislature, on the secretary of state’s Web site — www.sos.arkansas.gov/elections/Pages/initiativeReferendums.aspx.

Just keep in mind nothing has made the ballot yet.

Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at royo@suddenlink.net.

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