Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

EDITORIALS >> Casinos Royale

By winter, Arkansas will have casinos at Hot Springs and West Memphis, the first since Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller shut down the illegal ones at Hot Springs in 1968. The state Racing Commission last week gave the franchise owners permission to operate 1,000 gambling machines each. The Arkansas Supreme Court could block the casinos when it returns from its summer recess, but one of the franchise owners is confident enough about the courtís decision that they are already building the grand gambling hall and is ordering the machines.

Oaklawn Jockey Club at Hot Springs is more prudent. It is waiting on the Supreme Court to say that the elections last November in both cities were legal. They have good reason to be cautious.

While the Racing Commissionís licensing of the operations at the thoroughbred track at Hot Springs and the greyhound track at West Memphis is good news for those with gambling impulses and for the out-of-state track owners, people addicted to constitutional niceties are not so happy. The act passed by the 2005 legislature lets the racetrack owners open casinos if the games require at least a little skill, even if the outcome is still always based on chance. That is supposed to get around the Constitutionís ban on lotteries.

But the immediate issue is whether the elections in which local voters approved the casinos are valid and constitutional. The voting procedures were strange indeed. The legislation let the track owners choose the most propitious moment for the elections and who would get to vote on the issue. The tracks chose city voters only, not voters in the surrounding counties.

Past gambling votes indicated that city voters were more likely to approve gambling than voters countywide.

The track owners paid the election judges and clerks and other ballot costs. Local judges ruled that this and the unusual leverage over the elections given to track owners squared beautifully with the constitutional protections of free, fair and impartial elections. Now we must see if the Supreme Court agrees. If it does, we hope it is not a trend.