- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2007

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Charter buses travel day and night across the Arkansas countryside to Mississippi casinos, ferrying gamblers out of a state that has long been a holdout in the push to bring more gambling to the Bible Belt.

For years, Kenneth Stoner and members of a Knights of Columbus chapter at Helena-West Helena looked on with envy — barred from even holding small bingo games because of Arkansas’ constitutional prohibition against gambling.

But on Tuesday, the games begin.

The Knights of Columbus at Helena-West Helena, plus hundreds of other charities across Arkansas, will be allowed to run bingo games and sell raffle tickets to raise money for their causes.

“In a rural area like we are, there’s just nothing else going on,” said Mr. Stoner, a former Phillips County judge.

Surrounded by states offering riverboat wagering, state-run lotteries or large casinos, Arkansas rejected expanded gambling for years. A constitutional amendment approved last year OK’d the new games, marking a major shift in a state that, until recently, was governed by Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher who opposed gambling.

Mr. Huckabee, who left office in January, is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

Before bingo and raffles were approved, the only gambling in the state was allowed at the Oaklawn Park horse track in Hot Springs and Southland Park, a greyhound track, in West Memphis.

Hot Springs and West Memphis voters last year authorized electronic games of skill, such as video poker, with the legislature’s approval. Those games have paid out $204 million since November — out of $221 million wagered — and the state’s take has been a little more than $3 million.

Under the new rules, the state government will take in revenue from the sale of bingo equipment — though just enough to cover the cost of regulation. The charities keep all their proceeds after paying winners.

Not all wagering has been warmly embraced by the state, however.

An attempt by an Indian tribe and a developer to build a $131 million casino in Fort Smith has met opposition from Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, and local residents. And a push by Lt. Gov. Bill Halter to put a lottery to fund college scholarships on the ballot failed in the legislative session after some groups questioned whether it would move the state toward more acceptance of large casino operations.

“Our position has been that we know of no form of gambling that is beneficial to a community,” said Jerry Cox, director of the Arkansas Family Council, which has traditionally opposed expanded gambling.

Mr. Cox’s group has sued over the Hot Springs and West Memphis elections that allowed for the electronic games at the race tracks, and the state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case in September.

“Anyone who thinks the so-called ‘electronic games of skill’ involve skill haven’t seen them,” Mr. Cox said. “These are video poker machines where you’re betting and losing money. The house always comes out ahead.”