'Letter of support' rule remains biggest concern for Arkansas Racing Commission

The Arkansas State Racing Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to publish draft casino gaming rules. A public comment period is required before the rules are officially approved. (Photo: KATV)

The Arkansas Racing Commission voted unanimously Thursday to publish their draft rules regulating casino gaming in the state for public inspection.

The meeting was standing-room only, with the majority in attendance concerned about the rule dealing with letters of support for casino applicants.

The language of the rule changed last week, requiring letters of support from county officials to be dated at the time a casino operator application is submitted. Applications can't be submitted until the commission finalizes its casino gaming rules.

Pope County Judge Ben Cross expressed support for the revised language. Cross's predecessor on he the bench, Jim Ed Gibson, had issued a letter of support to Mississippi-based Gulfside Casino Partnership, leading the group to announce their intentions of building a $250 million casino resort in Russellville.

"I think this is a good step in transparency by the members of this commission," Cross told the Racing Commission on Thursday. "It certainly makes my position as inheriting this situation much more transparent."

Several state lawmakers stated they supported the revised language as well.

"There's probably going to be some legal wrangling in the future. We understand that," said state Rep. Dr. Joe Cloud. "But right now we are looking for a transparent, open, fair playing field and I think that's part of what Rule 2 would provide us."

Gulfside Casino Partnership co-owner Terry Green appeared at Thursday's meeting with attorney Casey Castleberry. Gulfside has received letters of support from Judge Gibson and former Russellville Mayor Randy Horton. Castleberry argued the language change to Rule 2, undermines the intent of the casino amendment.

"It states one of those [licenses] shall be issued to an applicant in Pope County," said Castleberry. "So to the extent any rule frustrates the purpose of the amendment, we believe that it could be constitutionally problematic."

Similar concerns were raised by attorney Alex Gray, representing Downstream/Quapaw Nation in their plans to build Saracen Resort Casino in Pine Bluff. Gray was told at a previous meeting that a letter of support written by former Jefferson County Judge Booker Clemons would count toward Downstream's application.

Despite arguments from attorneys, the commission voted unanimously to publish the rules as written.

There's still a 30-day public comment period, followed by a public meeting on Feb. 21 before a final vote is taken to approve the rules. According to Amendment 100, the rules must be finalized by March 14 and the commission must start accepting applications by June.

To read the draft rules, click here or scroll below.

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