- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The fight over a ballot measure to legalize casinos in three Arkansas counties isn’t focusing on whether gambling is good or bad. Instead, it’s highlighting how much gambling has become a way of life in this Bible Belt state and testing how much more voters are willing to accept.

The campaign messages for and against the proposed constitutional amendment allowing casinos in Boone, Miller and Washington counties acknowledge that gambling isn’t going away from Arkansas. The state already has a lottery that raises money for college scholarships, electronic gambling at its two racetracks and charitable bingo at various locations.

Instead, the campaign and a bid to disqualify the measure from the ballot are focusing on where the line should be drawn and, if it moves, what restrictions are needed.

The group campaigning for the amendment isn’t avoiding the mention of casinos or gambling, but its first television ad focuses on the measure more as a way to boost tourism, attract jobs and keep tax revenue in Arkansas. The 30-second spot opens with images of people at a park and a campground, later showing shots of a roulette wheel, people playing a slot machine and poker chips.

“Home is where the heart is, and Arkansas is our home,” a narrator says in the ad, which supporters of the casino measure began airing statewide this month.

Opponents of the measure, however, say that message is obscuring a proposal to effectively crate a monopoly through the state’s constitution. If approved by voters, the casinos would be operated by three companies owned by supporters of the measure. Those companies could also transfer their licenses to anyone they choose under the proposed amendment.

“There are legitimate questions about who really benefits from this amendment and the wisdom of writing monopolies for private individuals directly into our constitution,” said Chuck Lange, chairman of Committee to Protect Arkansas’ Values/Stop Casinos Now, the group campaigning against the measure and trying to have it disqualified from the November ballot.

The anti-monopoly argument is a familiar one and was used four years ago against a similar pair of pro-casino measures that were ultimately disqualified from the ballot by the state Supreme Court.

And just like four years ago, the anti-casino campaign is being backed by a horse track and dog track that offer electronic “games of skill” like video poker and blackjack. Oaklawn Jockey Club and Southland Park Gaming and Racing announced last week they were backing the Stop Casinos Now campaign, with its executives calling the measure an “open invitation to corruption and unimaginable forms of gambling.”

That kind of criticism is coming from tracks that not that long ago were facing similar attacks and court challenges as they pushed for expanding their gambling rights. Their money will help in the opposition campaign, but will make it harder to focus the message on the ills of gambling.

The pro-casinos campaign is calling the tracks’ involvement hypocrisy, saying they’re more interested in protecting their own business interests.

“Arkansas does have a history and tradition when it comes to gaming, unfortunately our tradition is sending jobs, tourism, and tax revenue to other states instead of keeping them here in Arkansas,” said Robert Coon, a spokesman for Arkansas Wins in 2016, the group behind the casinos initiative.

The measure also gives pause to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, an opponent of the casino proposal. Hutchinson says if the state’s voters want more gambling, this isn’t the way to do it.

“Even if you were going to have casino gambling in Arkansas, this is not the means to accomplish it,” Hutchinson told reporters this month after the measure was certified for the ballot.

The fight over this measure may not settle whether Arkansans are ready for casino gambling, but it could at least clarify what way they don’t want to accomplish it.

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Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

An AP News Analysis

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