Secretary of State scuttles casino removal amendment over signatures

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,503 views 

Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, R-Ark., told supporters of an amendment to strike Pope County as a destination for a casino that they did not qualify for consideration due to a lack of signatures. Thurston also said Monday (Aug. 8) the amendment’s supporters did not qualify for a “cure period,” which would have allowed them to collect more voter signatures.

Fair Play Arkansas, the group wanting to remove Pope County from an amendment that allows a casino to be placed there, turned in around 100,000 signatures in early July. 89,151 valid signatures are needed for approval.

After reviewing petitions, Thurston said the group only turned in 62,859 valid signatures. In order to qualify for the “cure period,” Fair Play Arkansas needed 66,864 valid signatures, a 75% threshold of the minimum signatures needed.

“Therefore, the petition submitted on behalf of Fair Play for Arkansas is deemed insufficient and does not qualify for correction or amendment,” Thurston told the group.

Over a week ago, the measure was also dealt another setback when the State Board of Election Commissioners rejected its ballot title.

In 2018, Arkansas voters approved a casino amendment that created four casino licenses. Two casinos that had already been operating prior to 2018 under different state regulations, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort and Southland Casino Racing, received two of the four licenses. The third was awarded to Jefferson County, and the fourth license was designated for Pope County.

Saracen Casino Resort opened in Jefferson County in October 2020, but Pope County casino plans have been embattled with numerous lawsuits involving multiple groups vying for that one license available. A casino has still not opened in Pope County, although a state commission has voted to accept the application by Cherokee Nation Businesses/Legends Resort & Casino for the license in Pope County.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, Fair Play said it will review the information from the Secretary of State to make a determination regarding any further efforts toward the November ballot.

David Couch, an attorney for Cherokee Nation Businesses and the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, a ballot question committee opposing Fair Play Arkansas, said his group’s efforts were in part responsible for the lack of signatures.

“For the first time in Arkansas history, voters were well-informed on the ballot initiative and its effects prior to being approached by canvassers. Our grassroots and digital voter education efforts led many to decline to sign Fair Play’s petition, ultimately resulting in its failure to get the measure on the ballot,” he said.

“We’re grateful for the diligent efforts of our canvassing team in spite of extreme opposition from the Arkansas Tourism Alliance, including possible criminal activity currently under investigation. Our canvassers faced assault, physical intimidation, harassment and other threats against their effort to legally gather signatures,” said Fair Play spokesman Hans Stiritz.

“Additionally, the legitimacy of the effort to place a casino in Pope County continues to be in question. Amendment 100 put in place a process ripe for corruption and self-dealing that demands further official investigation. Unfortunately, Pope County voters still have not been given a means to determine for themselves whether a casino should be allowed in their own community,” he said in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.

Chuck Garrett, CEO for Cherokee Nation Businesses, said his group is in the process of putting together a land deal to move the casino forward.

“Strong progress continues to be made on our plans for the first-class Legends Resort & Casino, including the acquisition of more than 180 acres of land. We look forward to making some big project announcements in the coming months, including our Arkansas-based construction manager and architect. We expect pending litigation to be resolved expeditiously and look forward to starting construction so that Pope County and the state of Arkansas can begin experiencing the economic benefits of our project,” Garrett said.

A spokesman for Fair Play Arkansas said a statement is forthcoming. Talk Business & Politics will update this story later today.

Following are Constitutional amendments approved by the Arkansas General Assembly that will be on the November general election ballot.

• The Constitutional Amendment and Ballot Initiative Reform Amendment would require a 60% threshold for approval of any constitutional amendment or voter-led initiated act.

• An Amendment to the Arkansas Constitution Concerning Extraordinary Session of the General Assembly would allow the legislature to call itself into special session. Special sessions are now called by the governor.

• The Arkansas Religious Freedom Act seeks to amend the state constitution to prohibit the government from burdening a person’s freedom of religion.