Published: January 13, 2019

Arkansas Racing Commission Approves Draft Casino Rules for Public Comment

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Lawmakers, lawyers and lobbyists packed the state racing commission's meeting Thursday to debate the effects of a casino proposal. 

Following a review by the governor's office and the Department of Finance and Administration, the commissioners approved 25 draft rules for public comment but got an earful about one. 

"There's strong feelings on both sides," said Chairman Alex Lieblong at the beginning of the meeting.

The fate of casinos in Jefferson and Pope counties could come down to a piece of paper. The amendment Arkansas voters passed in November states a company needs a letter of support from local officials before opening a casino in their neighborhood. 

The new Pope County judge, along with the new Russellville mayor, state lawmakers who represent the area and some of their constituents, all support a change to one of the racing commission's draft rules. It now states a letter of support would have to come from those in office at the time a casino application is made.

"It certainly makes my position as inheriting this situation much more transparent," Pope County Judge Ben Cross said.

The change in the proposed language would mean the letters from the former Pope County judge and Russellville mayor in support of Gulfside Casino Partnership would be void.

"The effect of this new proposed rule could be to eliminate the only qualified applicant for a casino license in Pope County," said Casey Castleberry, Gulfside's attorney. "If it does that, it could be constitutionally infirm."

A Russellville business owner, David Ivy, pointed specifically to former Pope County Judge Jim Ed Gibson's letter. It read, "If a license is issued for a casino in Pope County Arkansas I give my support for Gulfside Casino Partnership."

"'If', two letters, is a big word," Ivy said. "It really doesn't say that he does or doesn't support a casino. To me, that's not a conditional letter of support."

Judge Cross then made commissioners aware of an interview Gibson did with River Valley Now on his last day in office New Year's Eve. Cross read, "He was specifically asked in his letter if this was intended to be 'the letter of support' that was asked for. Judge Gibson responded, 'No. The letter I sent was one sentence long, and that's why we put 'if a casino license is granted' in the letter.'" 

The racing commission's attorney, Byron Freeland, asked for a copy of the article.  

While Pope County continues to fight a casino with a pending lawsuit, Jefferson County has been more supportive. However, the draft rule would also nullify its outgoing county judge's letter of support for the Quapaw Tribe's Downstream Development Authority.

Downstream's attorney, Alex Gray, argued since it has that letter and a letter of support from the Pine Bluff mayor, who did not change Jan. 1, the draft rule should instead allow one from a current official and one from a former.

"It would protect the integrity of the process and the open dialogue that has been going for months and months in Jefferson County and Pine Bluff," Gray said.  

But a state lawmaker who represents the area argued none of these letters should exist since companies cannot yet apply for a casino license.

"That muddies the process and takes away the confidence of the people that this is a real process of consideration, a real application process," said St. Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff.

The application process cannot open until the rules are adopted.

Arkansans have the opportunity to weigh in on the draft rules until the racing commission's next meeting Feb. 21. Commissioners will then vote to adopt, modify or reject the rules.

If approved, the rules would go to the legislature for review and ratification ahead of a March 14 deadline. The amendment states the application period should open no later than June 1.

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