Arkansas AG Approves Petition for Casino Ballot Measure

Arkansas Casino Ballot Measure - Russellville Casino Referendum 2018

Leslie Rutledge provisionally approved the casino ballot measure, but suggested she might disallow such a referendum later.

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge approved two November ballot measures this week. Previously, AG Rutledge had turned down over 60 requests for a casino referendum.

One of the ballot measures concerns the building of a casino in Russellville. A political action committee, Driving Arkansas Forward, must collect 84,859 signatures before July 6 in order to get the proposal on a public vote.

The Russellville casino tax revenue would be at a 65% rate, which makes it one of the highest casino taxes in the world. The revenues would go to improving Arkansas’ transportation infrastructure.

If Driving Arkansas Forward completes its signature drive in time, then the Russelville casino referendum would be on the November 6 mid-term election ballot.

Signature Drive Ends July 6

While no presidential election takes place in November, one-third of U.S. Senators, all U.S. representatives, trial court judgeships, county offices, and 4 statewide initiatives will be on the ballot. No state-level or city-level offices will be on the ballot in 2018.

As a general rule, a certain number of signatures on a ballot petition are disallowed by state officials, so Driving Arkansas Forward will need to collect thousands of more signatures than the 84,859-signature minimum.

The number disallowed tends to be in the 5% to 10% range, though state officials in Nebraska have kicked off as many as 35% of signatures in order to keep issues from reaching the ballot. Election officials need to verify the signees are registered voters, but signatures often are hard to verify, due to sloppy handwriting and other errors.

Arkansas’ November Ballot Measures

The other statewide casino vote, the Arkansas Casino Gaming Amendment of 2018, has several parts to it. First, it would authorize the building of a casino apiece in Russellville and Jefferson County.

Second, the referendum would allow for expanded gambling at two racetracks: Southland Park Gaming & Racing in West Memphis and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. The other two iniatiatives on the ballot are a proposal to raise Arkansas’ minimum wage to $12 an hour by the year 2022, as well as a proposal to change redistricting in the state.

Leslie Rutledge Criticizes High Court

Leslie Rutledge’s decision to approve the casino votes comes as a surprise to many gaming proponents. Only a month ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied a motion by Driving Arkansas Forward to force Rutledge to place the referendum on the ballot — the fourth such time motions have failed in the high court.

Nevertheless, the state attorney general was critical of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling, saying in a press conference, “I have issued opinions on ballot proposals based on standards set forth in statutes as well as case law of the Arkansas Supreme Court.”

“However, the Arkansas Supreme Court has once again muddied the waters on these standards by offering no insight in its decision requiring me to certify or substitute language of a ballot title that I had previously rejected.”

Russellville and Jefferson Casinos Could Be Axed

Leslie Rutledge also said all four ballot initiatives were provisional. Just because she had approved the four measures provisionally, she might decide later to turn down one or all four of the ballot measures, if such measures were challenged.

She said, “To be clear, today’s certifications do not prevent a citizen from legally challenging a ballot proposal once the required number of signatures are submitted to the Arkansas Secretary of State. Therefore, it is a real possibility that any one or all of the certified proposals will not appear on the ballot in November.”

New Referendum Law for Arkansas?

Finally, Leslie Rutledge called for the Arkansas legislature to pass referendum laws which clarify how ballot measures are approved. The attorney general said the statutes are unclear on the legal way a referendum is approved.

Rutledge tasked the General Assembly with making a better set of laws, adding, “The Arkansas Supreme Court’s failure to include clear standards and reasoning has only exacerbated the confusion surrounding ballot title submissions. I am calling on the General Assembly to create a system ensuring Arkansans have a clear and fair process to amend the constitution and place initiatives on the ballot.”

The Arkansas attorney general appears to be qualifying her remarks significantly in announcing the Russellville ballot measures. In fact, the phrase today’s certifications do not prevent a citizen from legally challenging a ballot proposal” could be taken as a signal to casino opponents to file formal legal challenges to all four ballot measures.  While the decision to approve a signature drive is a positive sign, proponents of the Russellville casino should not think they have achieved their goal yet.