LITTLE ROCK — Supporters of proposals that would allow casinos in Arkansas and raise the severance tax on natural gas turned in thousands of signatures to the secretary of state’s office before Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline.
Supporters of an ethics reform proposal acknowledged falling short of the required number.
Friday was the deadline for groups supporting proposed constitutional amendments and initiated acts to submit signatures to the secretary of state.
Backers of a proposed initiative that would legalize marijuana use for medical purposes submitted more than 67,000 signatures on petitions Thursday.
The first group to turn in signatures Friday was Arkansas Counts, which submitted 80,373 signatures at 8 a.m. Nancy Todd, a professional poker player who spearheaded the gaming amendment, said she decided to turn petitions in early because she and others had spent the previous night counting them.
“I was afraid if I rested I would fall asleep and miss the deadline, so I just took them in first thing,” she said. “I’m very happy.”
The proposed constitutional amendment would allow Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace LLC to operate casino-style table games and up to four casinos in Crittenden, Franklin, Miller and Pulaski counties.
Shortly after the signatures were filed, the Family Council Action Committee announced it would actively oppose the measure if it qualifies for the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
“Nancy Todd’s Poker Palace and Entertainment Venues is a gambling corporation trying to write itself into the Arkansas Constitution and give itself a monopoly on casino gambling in our state,” Jerry Cox, president of the conservative Family Council Action Committee, said in a news release.
Just under the 5 p.m. deadline, Texas businessman Michael Wasserman submitted what he told the secretary of state’s office was 83,777 signatures for his proposal to operate casinos in Boone, Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, Miller, Pulaski and Sebastian counties.
Wasserman has had two previous versions of the proposed casino amendment certified by the attorney general, but this is the first time he has submitted signatures to attempt to qualify for the ballot.
About 2:15 p.m. Friday, former gas company executive Sheffield Nelson turned in 69,717 signatures for an initiated act to raise the severance tax on natural gas from 5 percent to 7 percent and eliminate exemptions to the current rate.
Nelson said he expects the measure to be on the ballot in November and challenged the leader of a group formed to oppose his proposal to a debate.
Nelson described Randy Zook, president of the state chamber and chairman of the Arkansas for Jobs and Affordable Energy, as “arrogant” and “a bully” when talking with reporters before the petitions were filed. He accused Zook’s group of misleading people about what the severance tax increase would do, and claimed some members threatened canvassers.
“I don’t how to respond to silly, overblown rhetoric like that,” Zook said later. “If he has got any proof of any of that I am sure he would have turned it over to the authorities.”
Zook did say passage of the severance tax would hurt the natural gas industry in the state and cost the state thousands of jobs. Nelson said the natural gas industry makes too much money in Arkansas now to leave the state if the severance tax is raised. He said an increase would not cause job losses.
Nelson estimates the proposed increase would generate about $250 million annually. The first $20 million would go to cities for their road needs.
Alex Daniels, spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said Friday that the office has 30 days from the day the proposals were filed to verify the signatures. If any of the groups that turned in signatures come up short of the number of valid signatures needed to qualify for the general election ballot — 62,507 for an initiated act and 78,133 for a constitutional amendment — the group will have 30 days to make up the difference.
Meanwhile, supporters of the ethics initiative said they ran out of time after starting signature gathering in May.
“We knew that gathering the signatures necessary to place the ethics measure on the ballot would be a daunting challenge,” said Brent Bumpers, co-chairman of the Better Ethics Now Committee, which along with the group Regnat Populus 2012 organized the canvassing effort.
Supporters said lawmakers should study the proposal and fashion legislation for the 2012 legislative session.
The Campaign Finance and Lobbying Reform Act of 2012 would have banned lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, made former lawmakers wait two years after leaving office before becoming lobbyists and banned direct corporate and union contributions to candidates for public office.
Paul Spencer, who founded Regnat Populus 2012 and helped draft the proposal, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.