Gwen Moritz

Are We Really Such Chumps?

Gwen Moritz Editor's Note

Are We Really Such Chumps?

More than 100,000 Arkansans signed the petition, so an amendment to write three companies owned by Missouri businessmen into our state constitution will appear on the statewide ballot in November.

No, this isn’t like Oaklawn and Southland. Those racinos are certainly protected monopolies, as are various electric, gas and telephone utilities in the state. But none of those monopolies is written into the constitution by name as Arkansas Gaming & Resorts LLC, Miller County Gaming LLC and Washington County Gaming LLC hope to be.

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As far as I can tell, no state has ever named a private entity in its constitution. I assume that’s because Arkansas has more chumps per capita, so it would be a relief if someone could prove me wrong.

Now, it could be that I’m just too stupid to recognize that protecting specific companies from competition by writing them into a state constitution is the greatest idea blending good government and economic development since tax-increment financing. (That was a joke. A legislator recently told me that TIF has become a bad word at the Capitol.)

But so far, no one has been able to persuade me that Missouri businessmen Jim Thompson and Bob Womack, and the Arkansans who are assisting their effort, are anything but cynical opportunists hoping to put one over on Arkansans.

Those hired guns — specifically Barry Sellers, an economic developer for hire in and out of Arkansas, and Robert Coon of Impact Management Group — describe the amendment as an economic development engine. “This amendment will create thousands of good paying jobs, generate tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue, increase tourism, and stimulate our state and local economies,” Coon said in a statement reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Casinos in Washington, Boone and Miller counties would obviously have to hire people. Still, you’d think self-proclaimed conservatives like Coon and Sellers would favor free-market competition rather than monopolies. You’d think conservatives who see casinos as the promised land of prosperity for Arkansas would look for political strategies to break up the existing monopolies rather than try to create more of them.

I used to be able to tell the difference between a conservative economic principle and a shameless sellout, but this one has me flummoxed.

And what’s next? An amendment giving Glazer’s the exclusive right to distribute liquor? An amendment designating Crossland Construction as the state’s only highway contractor?

I mean, why not? When we start writing companies into the constitution for exclusive privileges that can only be rescinded by another statewide vote, why stop with just Missouri casino operators? What’s to stop any other company, foreign or domestic, from hiring lawyers to draw up self-serving amendments, getting the wording approved by the attorney general and paying canvassers to get enough signatures to get on the ballot?

I doubt many of the petition signers understood that they were helping out-of-state owners get an unprecedented advantage, not just paving the way for more casinos. A hundred thousand people might be persuaded to sign a petition if they were told it would make liquor easier to buy or highways smoother.

I lost $18 at Oaklawn in 1979, and the misery of getting nothing for something taught me then and there that I’m not a gambler. More casinos won’t affect my lifestyle at all, and properly regulated and taxed casinos are far preferable to me than the lottery by which our state government actively encourages long-odds gambling by the citizens who can least afford it.

So if a majority of Arkansans want more casinos, that’s fine by me. But creating constitutional monopolies for private companies is not fine. It’s outrageous. It shouldn’t even be legal, but a similar amendment was on the ballot in 2000 and attorneys general keep approving the language.

I can still pray that this is a huge waste of Missouri dollars because at least half of Arkansas voters will draw the line at selling naming rights to our state constitution.

There are a lot of Arkansas counties that need jobs worse than the proposed casino locations. The July unemployment rate was 3 percent in Washington and 3.9 percent in Boone. Even Miller County’s 4.4 percent unemployment was lower than in Garland (4.5) and Crittenden (4.9), the homes of Oaklawn and Southland.

Maybe Mississippi County could use a casino. Its unemployment rate in July was 7.5 percent, the highest in the state and equal to that of Tunica County, Mississippi, where casinos don’t seem to have created enough jobs.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at