Reports Shed Light on Backers of Wet, Dry Groups in Arkansas

Ballot question committees have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on wet-dry county battles across the state as the deadline for signatures and the all-important November election loom.

According to the most recent financial reports filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, ballot question committees on both sides of the wet-dry county debates have spent more than $360,000 from Sept. 1-May 31.

So far, the majority of the money, $259,000, has been spent on canvassers gathering signatures to get the initiatives on the November ballot. In addition, more than $27,000 has been spent on mailing, more than $23,000 on advertising and more than $4,000 on signs and billboards.

According to the Arkansas Ethics Commission website, 13 committees have been formed pertaining to the wet-dry question in Arkansas, with six in support of alcohol sales and seven in opposition.

The groups are active in Sherwood and Jacksonville in Pulaski County, as well as throughout Columbia, Independence, Craighead, Faulkner and Saline counties. Groups seeking to put the wet-dry question before voters have until July 7 to get enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in November.

Groups opposed to alcohol sales have been formed in Jacksonville and in Independence, Craighead and Faulkner counties. In Craighead County alone, three opposition committees have been formed.

Sherwood and Columbia County are the only areas without organized groups opposed to alcohol sales.

In Columbia County, the latest numbers from the group Vote for Growth in Columbia County show more than $10,000 in cash on hand. Through May 31, the committee has spent more than $38,000 on canvassing and more than $2,000 on advertising and signs. The committee needs about 6,300 signatures to have the issue on the ballot. 

The latest financial report available through Arkansas Ethics Commission shows Keep Dollars in Sherwood has more than $9,000 in cash on hand, and has spent more than $2,000 on advertisement. It needs about 4,700 signatures to put the question before voters. The group has hired a consulting firm to help with canvassing.

The initiative pertains to the area of Arkansas 107, north of Maryland Avenue. Mary Cobb, the committee president, said the initiative would legalize alcohol sales in restaurants and grocery stores, but would not include liquor stores.

Barry Sellers, the economic development director for the Sherwood Chamber of Commerce, says the area will develop no matter what, but the passage of this initiative would speed it along.

Sellers said the initiative is not so much about alcohol, but more about jobs and local sales tax revenue.

Our Community, Our Dollars

In Craighead, Saline and Faulkner counties, a group called Our Community, Our Dollars is pushing for votes on retail alcohol sales. 

The committee is funded by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville and Kum & Go of West Des Moines, Iowa. In its first financial report in May, the committee reported $625,000 in contributions -- $600,000 from Wal-Mart and $25,000 from Kum & Go. 

Our Community, Our Dollars, headed by former Wal-Mart executive Jay Allen and Arkansas Grocers & Retailers Merchants President Polly Martin, has already shelled out more than $220,000 for canvassing efforts in the three counties.

To gather signatures in all three counties, the committee has hired National Ballot Access of Lawrenceville, Georgia, a private petition drive management firm that collects signatures for ballot initiatives, referendums and recalls. Petition drives began in May.

As with all county issues, the committee needs signatures from 38 percent of the registered voters in each county. That translates to about 25,000 signatures in Saline County, 24,800 in Faulkner County and 20,000 in Craighead County.

Natalie Ghidotti, a spokeswoman for the committee, says that so far, canvassers have collected more than half the number of signatures they need in each county. 

Liquor-Backed Opposition

In some places where the wet-dry question is debated, opposition to alcohol sales can make for strange bedfellows. In many cases, alcohol retailers in nearby counties spent money to oppose the option of going wet.

In Faulkner and Craighead counties, opposition groups have formed in response to the Our Community, Our Dollars ballot initiative.

In Faulkner County, the Conway County Legal Beverage Association has formed the CCLBA Action Fund committee. The CCLBA is a registered nonprofit that is "engaged in the election process of proposed changes in the alcoholic beverage local option laws," according to tax information.

Jerry Weeks, chairman of the committee, is the owner of 64 E Liquor in Morrilton, according to Conway County Assessor records. Paperwork for the committee was filed June 3. To date, no financial reports have been filed with the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Also in Faulkner County, a group called They Win, You Lose has formed to oppose Our Community, Our Dollars' efforts there. The committee's treasurer, Camille Boggess, was listed as a lobbyist for the CCLBA in 2012. As of May 31, all contributions to the committee have been in the form of loans from the committee chair, M.F. Dillard of Benton, and the committee is currently in a deficit of more than $400.

In Craighead County, three opposition groups — Local Citizens for Safety and Prosperity, Greene County Beer Association and Craighead Pride — have formed.

The Local Citizens for Safety and Prosperity formed May 8, according to the Arkansas Ethics Commission. Through May 31, the committee has received more than $42,000 in contributions with all money coming from liquor stores in neighboring counties. Local Citizens received $20,000 from PCL Corp., which runs the Poinsett Package Store, a liquor store in Poinsett County. 

The committee also received $20,000 from the Greene County Beer Association and more than $900 from Payless Wine Beer & Spirits, located in Poinsett County. 

D&C Inc., which runs the Country Liquor Store in Poinsett County, contributed more than $1,800 to the committee.

The Greene County Beer Association committee was formed May 15, according to Arkansas Ethics Commission records. As of May 31, no contributions were made to the committee. But the GCBA, a registered nonprofit, contributed $20,000 from its regular operating funds, which went to the Local Citizens for Safety and Prosperity.

The Craighead Pride committee formed, in opposition, June 5. To date, no financial reports are available.

Jacksonville Wet-Dry Battle

In Jacksonville, the battle for wet and dry is winding down. A group called Growing Jacksonville formed in August 2013 in opposition to Jacksonville going wet. The committee is led by Donnie Copeland, an area pastor and candidate for state representative in District 38. 

Copeland told Arkansas Business on Thursday the committee was in the process of dissolving. The decision was made after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow alcohol sales in every county.

Before the decision, Growing Jacksonville received thousands of dollars in support, including more than $20,000 in contributions from Rockport Refreshment Co. The company is led by Nick Pierce, who runs the Ace Liquor Store in Cabot.

Copeland said he was open from the start that the committee's support was largely from liquor stores in neighboring areas.

"My whole thinking was I was trying to keep it out," he said. "Wherever the money came from was fine by me. I told [the liquor store contributors] my ultimate goal would be to put them out of business, they laughed."

Copeland admitted it was bothersome to be backed by the liquor stores.

"It definitely was not something I would have preferred," he said. "In fairness, I talked to many churches and individuals that are against it, and they were not willing to put up a dime. I utilized who was willing to help fight it. [The liquor stores] were honest with me, and I was honest with them."

The Jacksonville Wet-Dry Campaign committee formed in September in support of getting the issue on the November ballot. The committee chair, Phillip Carlisle of Jacksonville, said the committee does support liquor sales by the drink, but the main focus is having the issue voted on by the Jacksonville residents.

Carlisle said the initiative needs about 5,100 signatures and has about 2,100, currently. The vote would be for the Gray Township, which includes parts of Jacksonville and Pulaski County, Carlisle said.

So far, all $40,000 in contributions the committee has received has come from the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

Independence County Battle

In Independence County, the Wet/Dry Let's Decide group is pushing for the legalization of alcohol sales across the county. 

Phillip Finch, the committee chair, told Arkansas Business in January that the campaign would cost about $10,000 and require the signatures of about 8,000 registered voters. 

Finch said he hopes the initiative, if passed, would generate tax revenues for the cities and county. 

As of May 31, the committee had more than $800 in cash on hand, and had spent more than $1,500 in ads and signs.

An opposition group, Keep Independence Dry and Safe, has formed in opposition of the ballot initiative. The group appears to be a grassroots campaign with much of its contributions coming from individual residents and several churches in the area. 

As of May 31, the group had more than $6,100 in cash on hand, and had spent more than $3,000 in ads, signs and billboards.

Statewide Amendment

While several local initiatives are underway across the state, there is a possibility of a proposed constitutional amendment being on the November ballot that, if approved by voters, would make alcohol sales legal in all Arkansas counties.

The text and title of the proposed constitutional amendment, The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Amendment, was penned by Little Rock attorney David Couch and approved by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel last month. 

To make its way to the ballot, the amendment needs the signatures of 78,133 registers voters by the July 7 deadline, with at least 5 percent of the voters in 15 different counties.. 

Couch told Arkansas Business on Thursday he has enlisted the help of National Ballot Access to conduct petition drives in Faulkner, Craighead and Saline counties. He said he has also partnered with initiatives in Jacksonville, and Independence and Columbia counties.

As of now, Couch said the proposed amendment has gained more than 20,000 signatures and has met minimum qualifications in 10 of 15 counties.

A ballot initiative committee, Let Arkansas Decide, was formed in support of the proposed amendment June 11, according to Arkansas Ethics Commission records. Couch is listed as the committee's attorney and treasure. No financial reports have been filed with the ethics commission, as of Thursday, but Couch said contributions are coming in.

If the amendment is approved, alcohol sales would be legal in all Arkansas counties, and all laws that allowed counties to hold individual wet-dry votes would be repealed.