The fact that lobbying interests still have a strong influence on legislation passed by the Arkansas General Assembly should surprise no one. In fact, since the enactment of term limits most lobbyists find it even easier to push through legislation that they not only support but have a heavy influence in crafting.
One of the powerful lobbying interests in the state represents Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis — the only two places in Arkansas where gambling is legal other than charitable bingo and the state run lottery. Most are just now realizing the consequences of two laws the racing interests lobbied for in the previous legislative session; one measure protects their near gambling monopoly while the other measure expands it.
Sen. Keith Ingram, who represents the district where Southland is located, sponsored legislation that became Act 1413 of 2013, with the support of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. The measure primarily dealt with the petition gathering process for ballot measures. The new law requires paid canvassers to register with the state and undergo training.
Why would racing interests support that kind of legislation? Because Oaklawn and Southland have an economic interest in making it difficult for the competition to move into the state, therefore raising the bar for getting other gambling measures on the ballot helps them maintain their monopoly.
One unintended consequence of the act is causing a bit of a headache for lawmakers. It takes away the ability for the attorney general to assign ballot titles to ballot measures proposed by the state Legislature. This embarrassing oversight came up in an AG opinion released the evening before Christmas Eve, so the goof up took a while to make it into the news.
"I have to admit that none of us saw this wrinkle," McDaniel said at a legislative meeting on the problem last week. "It’s embarrassing and I’m sorry. But here we are."
Another new law, Act 350 of 2013, was sponsored by Sen. Bill Samples, who represents Hot Springs where Oaklawn is located. The bill received little attention during the session as it looked like an innocuous bill primarily updating some licensure rules for the Arkansas Racing Commission.
But tucked within the bill is a provision that allows Oaklawn and Southland patrons to "place wagers by communication through telephone or other mobile device or through other electronic means on races conducted at the franchise holder’s race track facility and horse races or greyhound races at other racetracks, whether or not the patron is located on the grounds of the franchise holder’s race track facility when placing the wager."
The purpose of this provision became clear a couple weeks ago when Oaklawn announced the introduction of "Oaklawn Anywhere." Now Arkansans can place their bets with a click of their mouse on their computer or a touch of their finger on their smartphone.
You may recall that a decade ago Oaklawn passed a similar expansion bill through the state Legislature at greased lightning speed that allows them to greatly expand their gambling operation to include "electronic games of skill." These EGS are thinly veiled casino style games that allow the two parks to take in several billion dollars in additional gambling revenues each year.
With this much money on the line, it is no surprise the racing interests keep close ties with the Legislature. And, of course, tax revenues get a boost as well. In the last fiscal year Arkansas received nearly $36 million in excise taxes on the EGS. I am sure online betting will bring in revenue as well.
Who knows what they will think up next.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.