Ark. AG certifies casino proposal

JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press Writer
Published Wednesday, April 01, 2009

LITTLE ROCK A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow casinos to be built in seven Arkansas counties could go before voters.

State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has approved the wording of the casino proposal by Texas businessman Michael Wasserman, owner of Arkansas Hotels and Entertainment Inc. The amendment would give Wasserman's company exclusive rights to build and operate casinos in Boone, Crittenden, Garland, Jefferson, Miller, Pulaski and Sebastian counties.

McDaniel previously rejected the proposed amendment in February, saying its ballot title was unclear. In a letter dated Monday, the attorney general said his office made some grammatical changes to the measure, but otherwise left it alone.

Wasserman, who runs an internet service provider in Gainesville, Texas, told The Associated Press that he plans to hire professional signature-gatherers to get the 77,468 signatures necessary to put the measure on the 2010 ballot. Wasserman said that effort likely would begin in May.

In 2006, Wasserman struck a deal with the Arkansas AFL-CIO to help collect signatures for the proposal. The businessman ended that effort after the death of his sister.

Such casino proposals aren't new to Arkansas Wasserman's measure has similarities with a measure voters rejected in 2000 that also would have allowed charitable bingo and a state lottery. In 1996, voters rejected a measure backed by the Oaklawn Park horse track in Hot Springs to allow a casino to be built in that city. Other casino proposals failed to make the ballot after court challenges.

Now though, Wasserman's proposal comes at a time when voters seem less leery of gambling. In recent years, voters have approved a state lottery, as well as charity raffles and bingo games. Oaklawn Park and a West Memphis dog track now also have electronic casino-style games after voter-approved initiatives.

"It's a pretty strong indication that Arkansans are more accepting of gaming," Wasserman said Tuesday. "Right now, with the economy the way it is, I would think Arkansans are looking for the increased flow of people with buying dollars."

Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council, said Wasserman's proposal likely would cut away legislative oversight of what would be monopoly operations if the measure passed. Cox said his group would oppose Wasserman's measure.

Cox's conservative group unsuccessfully fought last year's constitutional amendment that allows a state lottery. While voters supported that measure, Cox said that didn't mean they would back a proposal for a "plain-old, straight-up casino."

"There's no good reason to increase the number of bad ways that people can throw their money away," Cox said.

As of now, Wasserman said he has no other investors in his casino venture, though he expects to draw them if voters ultimately approve his proposal. Billboards along Arkansas interstates already advertise private casinos just across the border in Mississippi and tribal casinos in Oklahoma.

"If you check out any of the parking lots, you'll find more Arkansas license plates than anything else," Wasserman said.