This past weekend saw the annual RiverFest in Little Rock, Arkansas featuring dozens of musical groups and styles in a three-day festival. RiverFest is an annual event and this year, as every year, petitions were passed around to charge the legislature with the request that it legalize full scale land based casino gambling in the Southland Parks and Oaklawn gaming and racing sites plus two new full scale casinos, one in Pope County northwest of Little Rock and another in Jefferson County just southwest of the state capitol.
Grey Areas in the Law
As much as land based casino gaming is still a grey area in Arkansas, online gambling is even greyer. The law that regulates online gambling in the United States, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) makes it illegal to transfer money to online casinos but doesn’t make it illegal to gamble at online casinos. So, many online casinos have looked for ways to circumvent the law. One such way is to accept bitcoin while another is to require gamblers to submit bonus codes whenever they want the casino to award them a cash bonus.
A Sea of Change Coming
There was an added element to the petitions this year. Not only did they repeat the desire for full scale land based casinos in the area around the state capitol, they added the request for the state legislature to legalize sports betting in the state.
This request comes fast on the heels of the recent Supreme Court decision which renders a law called PASPA which was passed as an amendment to another bill that made sports betting illegal in all but four states, Nevada being one of them. The court decided that PASPA was unconstitutional because it treated forty six states differently than it treated the four states that already had legal sports betting which were allowed to grandfather their sports betting into the new law.
At least twenty states are already working on sports betting regulations. Arkansas has lagged behind because it has long lagged behind in the realm of land based casino gambling generally.
84,000 Signatures Needed
It is a long and arduous process to get the needed 84,000 signatures to put the casino initiative in the state-wide ballot this November. Proponents of the initiative state that gambling and now, especially, sports betting are potential sources of tax revenue to the state coffers. Every state in the Union is strapped for cash and many are looking to gambling as sources of needed revenue.
State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge is a longtime opponent of increasing gambling in Arkansas. In technical ways, she has stymied the casino initiative but was herself stymied by a state Supreme Court decision.
The money from casinos was once earmarked for highway construction in the state but has now been allocated to the treasury for general use. This is actually a point against it in the state as many residents don’t trust the legislature to spend tax revenues wisely.
Distrust of Government
The mood in Arkansas as in many of the states that voted for Donald Trump is to distrust the state to not only spend money wisely but to regulate human behavior wisely. Many residents who would be okay with land based casinos in the state do not want the accompanying tax money to go into the general treasury. They would like the money to be earmarked for such important projects as highways and schools.
Arkansas is a Bible Belt state and has long had a strong religious constituency that disapproves of all gambling. Arkansas has seen the influence of the religious cohort wane in recent years and the religious side expressed no specific opposition to the petitions.
Support has come from many sources notably the Jockey Club and the Quapaw and Cherokee Native-American tribes. The Indian tribes would like to build casinos on their lands.
Arkansas has two minor mountain ranges, the Ozark and the Ouachita. These attract many visitors each year in all seasons. Summers are hot, of course, but because of the elevation, temperatures are moderated and mountain breezes also ameliorate the effect of the heat. Winters are not so cold so many visitors come for weekends or longer to hike the many trails during the cooler months and to fish in the lakes and streams.
Arkansas has long had only Hot Springs National Park to attract visitors in addition to the mountains. By adding casino gambling near the mountains and the National Park, tourism interests hope to bring in many more visitors. The state is close to Memphis and Oklahoma City and is a relatively short drive from St. Louis and Dallas-Fort Worth.
Even people from as far away as Chicago might find a milder vacation amenable after they have tired of travelling the six hours north to get to the popular Door County, Wisconsin destination for Chicagoans. A short flight to Little Rock and an inexpensive car rental and people from a distance could have everything they need for a great vacation that includes both beautiful nature and beautiful casinos.
Advocates of legalizing sports betting in the state say that there is already much illegal sports betting by state residents. That is the case in all states that don’t have legal sports betting. The sports betting market is in the many tens of billions of dollars a year nationwide and supporters of legalized sports betting say the state should be in the forefront of reaping the tax bounty of legalization.
A Long Road Ahead
As has long been the case in Arkansas, there is still strong opposition to legalizing full scale land based casino gambling in the state. But the opposition seems to be weakening as many people see the financial benefit of land based casinos and the religious lobby continues to weaken.
The next few months and years may see great changes take place in Arkansas and other states that are only now getting geared up for the sports betting windfall.