Gambling Amendment Loses Big

Political observers believe the Amendment 4 campaign could top the chart as the most expensive political race in state history. More than $7 million was spent by backers and opponents as of late October, and expectations are the final tally will top $10 million when the last campaign spending reports are made public at year?s end.

Voters rejected the only gambling amendment to make the 1996 ballot by a 61-39 percent margin. The big loser was Charles Cella of St. Louis, who bet more than $5 million that voters would approve his amendment

?I?m not really surprised,? says Cella, owner of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. ?A few weeks out, it was clear that Mississippi [gambling interests were] declaring an all-out war on Arkansas. It was a very dark day for Arkansas.?

Larry Page, executive director of the Christian Civic Action Committee, counters that the outcome of the race was a bright day for the state. He considers Cella?s complaints against the opposition as sour grapes after he spent his millions.

?If they can?t sell their message with those kind of odds, they will be hard put to win in 1998,? Page says. ?The whining on the other side is tremendous. They need to grow up.

Will Cella bankroll a future effort to bring casino gambling to Arkansas?

?Oh, my God,? Cella exclaims. ?That?s academic. The question is whether Oaklawn will survive. If you look at tracks in the Midwest that have closed because of competition from casinos, the odds are that Oaklawn will not survive. Our concern is to keep Oaklawn afloat, but the odds are it will die.?

Page believes Cella is posturing in preparation for asking the state Legislature for tax relief. But the possibility of no more Oaklawn or Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis doesn?t bother him.

He and other gambling opponents made an unsuccessful run to put the repeal of all gambling in Arkansas to a vote. That issue didn?t make the ballot this year, but a future effort could be in the offing.

?It?s a distinct possibility,? Page says.

Shortening the Ballot

Page says Arkansas have ?soundly said no? to casinos and that the ?classic blunder? by Cella and his campaign was to have the other amendments withdrawn from the ballot.

When Oaklawn forces were successful in accomplishing that through last-minute legal challenges of Amendments 5, 7 and 8, Amendment 4 became the sole enemy for opponents to focus on in the final days of the campaign.

Cella?s decision also turned Mike Wilson, who sponsored Amendment 7, into an enemy of Amendment 4. His Committee to Promote Arkansas joined the advertising fray against Cella.

?I had no intention of fighting Amendment 4 when I got into this, but you can take only so much,? Wilson says. ?I even wrote Hot Springs into our amendment, and [Cella?s Amendment 4 backers] come along and get us bumped off the ballot. I?m sure he?s not a happy camper, but welcome to the party, Charles.?

Wilson declined to reveal how much was spent fighting Amendment 4. He believes the voters? rejection of Amendment 4 may have reflected sizable opposition to a flawed proposal as much as opposition to gambling in general.

?The percentages we were looking at on Amendment 4 didn?t tell much,? Wilson says. ?But I wouldn?t belittle the Christian Coalition?s effort, either.?

Wilson-backed ads against the measure focused on vagaries in Amendment 4 that would not guarantee state money collected from gambling funds would actually be earmarked for education and police. The ads pointed out that politicians would oversee the allocation of the state proceeds.

?I think that was a real hot-button with the voters,? Wilson says.

Closing Window of Opportunity?

He wonders if the window of opportunity for casino gambling in Arkansas in closing as the industry becomes more established in surrounding states. However, Wilson is not ruling out making another run with his proposal in 1998.

?I think there?s a real possibility,? he says. By mid-October, Wilson?s group spent $330,000 on its campaign.

While others aren?t calling it quits, Cella forces have said this is their last go at casino gambling in Arkansas. Opponents like Page are skeptical.

?I will not give any credence to any promise they make,? Page says. ?They will do whatever they believe is in their best interest.?

Ron Bumpass, a Fayetteville lawyer and chairman of Arkansas Wins Committee, couldn?t be reached for comment. The group, which represented casino interests in Mississippi, reported spending $1.2 million by late October to oppose Amendment 4. But everyone expects that figure climbed significantly in the finals days leading up to the Nov. 5 vote.

?They bombed us,? Cella says. ?It was simple as that. We tried to light a candle in the darkness and were blown away. Let?s face it, the atmosphere in Arkansas isn?t good. The people have voted against taxing themselves for improved roads and updating an archaic constitution.?

He ponders why Arkansans seem content to be last in the nation when it comes to progressive ideas such as better roads, an improved constitution and of course, casino gambling, which would dedicate a portion of the take to public projects.

?Have you ever noticed that Oaklawn is only interested in helping promote public education and police protection for Arkansans during even-numbered years?? Page says. ?They are insulting the intelligence of Arkansans.

?We were ahead [in the polls] before the Mississippi gambling interests waded in. Most of the margin increase can be attributed to the undecideds who voted ?no? thinking that it?s better to keep the devil you know than the devil you don?t know. Seven to 10 days out, I got the sense that the big ?mo? was with us. You could feel the momentum swinging even more in our favor.