All the legal wrangling over which company might get to operate a gambling facility in Pope County, Arkansas, might end up being wasted. That’s if a Pope County casino petition to exclude the county from being an Arkansas casino site clears its next pivotal hurdle.
The group behind the petition just submitted it to Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston for review. Should it pass muster, the state’s voters will determine whether all the effort and money spent to secure a license will be a futile endeavor.
Pope County, Arkansas casino petition handed off for inspection
According to Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the group Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 submitted over 103,000 signatures from registered voters in the state on Friday. Thurston’s office will now scrutinize the signatures.
The petition aims to remove Pope County from the list of sites for brick-and-mortar casinos in Arkansas. In 2008, voters approved the existing amendment that has enabled racetracks to add slots and table games. A potential Pope County casino would be new construction, however.
To qualify for the ballot, Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 will need at least 89,151 signatures that pass inspection. There are three potential outcomes of the verification process now.
Thurston could certify the petition. In that instance, it would appear as a ballot measure for all Arkansasans in November. Thurston could also rule that there are enough valid signatures for a 30-day “cure” process. Fair Play for Arkansas 2022 would then have a month to correct existing signatures or acquire more.
Wickline reports that the group already has canvassers out in anticipation of that situation. Thurston could also determine that the petition lacks enough valid signatures to even qualify for the 30-day cure and flat out refuse it, though.
The third result would be in the best interest of a company already heavily invested in the county.
Cherokee Nation Businesses are all-in on Pope County
Wickline shared a comment from an attorney for the Cherokee Nation Businesses, a gaming arm of the Indigenous Peoples’ group.
“Considering the historical validity rate of petitions in the state of Arkansas, as well as the population of registered voters, indications are strong … they will not meet the minimum numbers required to initiate the petitions,” said attorney David Couch.
There’s some validity to Couch’s comment in spite of his obvious bias. Petitions to initiate constitutional referendums do have a history of failure in Arkansas. For example, Thurston’s office chose not to certify a 2020 petition to expand the number of AR casino licenses.
Additionally, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the Cherokee Nation Businesses would fight to defeat the referendum if Thurston does eventually certify the petition. At this point, they’re too far invested to simply back out.
Arduous fight over Pope County license
Although there is a pending lawsuit, the Cherokee Nation Businesses currently hold the license to build a casino in Pope County. That’s a result of a lot of prior litigation, though, between the tribal casino operator and the Gulfside Casino Partnership.
To sum it up, the license has changed hands via various court rulings. Gulfside Casino Partnership held the license until an unfavorable Arkansas Supreme Court ruling stripped it from the group. Prior to that, a favorable ruling from the state’s Racing Commission awarded it to the Partnership.
If the Fair Play petition and the resulting vote both prove successful, that would leave both parties with nothing but legal bills to show for their jostling over a license that no longer exists. At this point, though, the validation of the petition is far from certain.