A Supreme Court ruling announced Monday could bring legalized sports gambling to Arkansas. But there is still a big hurdle in the way before Razorbacks fans can place their bets.
In a 6-3 decision the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992. It banned sports gambling, with exceptions for Delaware, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.
“It’s not often that the Congress can delegate, you know, a handful of states, and have one set of laws that apply to those and not everybody else,” said Nate Steel, a lawyer in Little Rock and former Arkansas State Representative. “And so, it seemed pretty clear that there was a states’ rights issue at play there.”
Steel is now legal counsel for Driving Arkansas Forward, a group trying to promote a ballot initiative to build casinos in Arkansas and legalize sports betting. Current state law prohibits any kind of sports gambling except for state-sanctioned races.
“Back when Arkansas created the authorization of electronic games of skill, for example, it was heavily discussed,” Steel recalled. “Of course, it was federally-banned, so there was nothing, really, states could do at that time. Arkansas has a specific statute that outlaws sports betting, even with the change in federal law, so nothing’s going to change under Arkansas law unless or until we either amend the Constitution or pass another statute.”
Steel mentioned three ways in which the law could change to permit sports betting in Arkansas: by voter approval of a constitutional amendment, or by lawmakers repealing the current law, or creating a new law to supersede the ban.
“I think it’ll be extraordinarily difficult to see the legislature simply change the law,” he argued. “It could be part of a greater scheme, to authorize, say, our state lottery, or some other kind of mechanism. If it’s part of a greater plan, I could see the legislature taking action. But, simply repealing the statute that currently bans sports wagering, I don’t see that happening.”
“I think,” said Jerry Cox, Executive Director of Family Council, “if there’s money to be made in sports betting—and there is—then you’re gonna see people push really hard for that.”
Estimates peg the amount of illegal sports gambling in the U.S. at $50-150 billion a year. Much of that will be up for grabs now that states can set their own laws to allow it. Steel thinks the economic motivation for Arkansas to enter that market is clear.
“North, south, east, and west—there’s casino gaming, literally on our borders, in every direction you go from Arkansas,” he stated. “Those tax dollars are just leaving the state. And I would assume you will see some changes in those states to now allow or authorize sports betting.”
Cox said he opposes sports gambling because of its impact on families when they lose money, the cost of social services needed to help people who cannot afford to gamble, and the potential to negatively affect the integrity of the Arkansas Razorbacks, Arkansas State Red Wolves, and other local teams.
While other states make quick plans to legalize sports wagers, Cox sees a familiar pattern.
“If the states around us decide to do sports gambling, then I think it’s to their peril that they do that,” he said. “However, I have to admit, if they start doing sports betting, then it does put more pressure on Arkansas, maybe to go the same way.
“We saw that with the lottery. Arkansas was one of the last states in the nation to legalize a state-run lottery, but we did, finally, because somebody thought we would make some money at it.”
Perhaps just as strong, in this case, is the fear that someone else will make money that could stay in Arkansas. Mississippi will be one of the first states to take action on sporting events. It already has a state law to allow sports betting, and state officials told The Clarion Ledger that casinos in Tunica could take wagers within two months, in time for the start of football season.
“So, I think it’s another good reason why Arkansas needs to catch up and offer our own gaming to Arkansas residents, so we don’t just miss out on all those tax dollars,” Steel said.
Driving Arkansas Forward’s initiative would allow Oaklawn and Southland Park to add full-fledged casinos, in addition to new casinos that could be built in Jefferson and Pope counties. Steel said those locations would give each quadrant of Arkansas a casino, reducing the need for people to cross the border to gamble.
A representative for Oaklawn chose not to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision and any plans the race track has to pursue sports betting. Representatives for Southland Park did not respond to THV11’s request for comment.
Driving Arkansas Forward’s initiative has not been approved by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, so organizers have not started collecting signatures. They sued Rutledge, saying they have met every demand she has placed on them in order to begin the canvassing process. Depending on the result of the lawsuit, Driving Arkansas Forward may attempt to get its proposed constitutional amendment on the 2018 or 2020 ballot. A more certain proposition is that legislators will debate several options for legalizing sports betting.
Steel mentioned that Arkansas could follow Mississippi and allow casino wagers; it could choose to make betting possible within the structure of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery; or it could find a different method.
“So, there’s a lot of different ways that sports wagering could become really relevant,” he said. “And I can guarantee you that it will be a major topic of discussion in the next General Assembly in 2019.”
Cox said discussions with Family Council and other members of conservative politics in Arkansas are just beginning. He said he will wait to see which bills are filed ahead of the 2019 legislative session. “And then if it looks like that there’s an effort that really has some momentum to legalize sports betting, then you can bet we’ll step up and oppose it very vigorously,” he added.