Leader Blues

Monday, March 21, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Huck caves in on gambling

Here is an acknowledgement that we woefully underestimated the efficiency of the Arkansas Legislature in the age of term limits. In barely more than a week a bill to legalize casino gambling made it from the fertile brains of racetrack officials to the statute books.
When there’s shady work to be done before people catch on, even the neophytes of this Legislature know how to cut through the parliamentary maze and make hasty law. A phalanx of lobbyists helps.

SB 999 by Rep. Bob Johnson will allow the owners of the state’s two pari-mutuel tracks, at Hot Springs and West Memphis, to open betting parlors where people can wager on electronic games of chance, sometimes known as slots. To get around the little matter of constitutional prohibitions, the games will have to involve “skill.” The state Racing Commission, always an eager friend of the tracks, will decide what meets that test. It’s assumed that video poker and blackjack will meet the threshold.

The bill sailed through the Senate and House of Representatives because the betting parlors can be established only after local elections, which is assumed to be automatic in Hot Springs and West Memphis. The local-option feature will allow lawmakers to shrug when people back home ask about their vote. We just voted to let folks over there decide.

That was a ruse for Gov. Huckabee, too, who denied any claim to leadership. The governor was out of town when the House approved the bill, but he wasted no time when he got back announcing that he would let the bill become law without his signature lest any of the interests behind the bill get aggravated that he might be a roadblock to gambling. He said he personally opposed casino gambling and believed the bill to be terrible government but, after all, local people would get to vote on it first.

Besides, Huckabee said, what could he do? He was just a governor without much influence in a legislature that was overwhelmingly Democratic. He said it would be pointless for him to veto the bill because both houses would promptly have overridden his veto. His letter to the legislature said he and lawmakers had gotten along famously this session, and he did not want to jeopardize that relationship by vetoing a bill they liked.

This is what passes for leadership in the year of our Lord 2005.

We remember the last time this happened — and this is almost a reincarnation. It was 1967, a Republican was governor and the House and Senate were 97 percent angry Democrats. The legislature late in the session quickly passed and fired to Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller a bill to legalize casino gambling in Garland and Crittenden counties, which would be regulated by a state Crime Commission. It was whispered in the legislative quiet rooms that the governor had agreed to sign the bill or let it become law without his signature. Earlier, he had sent state troopers barging into the casinos and they had confiscated and smashed the slots. He said he would do that as long as the law barred gambling.

But Rockefeller surprised them. He vetoed the bill. He said the people of Arkansas had expressed their opposition to casino gambling (they have done it four times since 1964), and he would not sit idly by and let it happen without a vote of the people.
Do you know what? The Legislature did not override his veto, although only a simple majority in both houses would have done it. Shamed by the governor’s moral stance, legislators begged the sponsors not to try to override the veto. They did not want to get on record again. Who knows? It might have worked for Huckabee, too.

Actually, the governor’s letter spelled out all the reasons that the bill should have at least been seriously debated. It is of dubious constitutionality, the taxes on the betting handle might well need to be much higher than the 20 percent that the bill specifies, and the state might have collected tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars — for school buildings, for example — by putting up the lucrative gambling franchises for bid rather than assigning them free to the current track owners.

When it comes to leadership, we miss the good old days.