Battle Looming To Reshape Arkansas Racing Commission

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Battle Looming To Reshape Arkansas Racing Commission
© USA Today

The stage is set for showdown next week at the Arkansas Legislature over an attempt to reshape the state Racing Commission.

Opponents see this as the first step in an effort to overturn a state rule requiring national online bookmakers, such as DraftKings and FanDuel, to share 51% of profits if partnering with an Arkansas casino on a mobile sports-betting app. The national bookmakers typically share 5-10%.

Supporters say the attempt to remake the commission is a way to add consumer voices to the panel.

The Racing Commission, which oversees all gaming in Arkansas, including horse racing, casino gambling and sports betting, previously approved the 51% profit-sharing rule at the request of Arkansas’ commercial casinos. Legislators later signed off on the rule.

Currently, the three mobile sports betting apps available in Arkansas are affiliated with the three in-state casinos — in West Memphis, Hot Springs and Pine Bluff. National online bookmakers have not partnered with any of the three casinos.

Senate Committee Approves Bill

On Thursday, the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee approved Senate Bill 539 to add four members to the Racing Commission, which would expand the seven-member panel to 11. Passage of SB539 came on a voice vote at 9:58 p.m. The bill now goes to the Senate floor for consideration next week. A vote could come as early as Monday.

Under SB539, sponsored by Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, the four new “consumer” members cannot be affiliated with the state’s three casinos or casino vendors.

Like all bills, any measure to add members to the Racing Commission must be approved by the full Senate and House before going to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders for her consideration. At Thursday’s committee hearing, Bryant said he has not spoken with the governor about the proposal.

House Bill Scheduled For Monday Hearing

The clock is ticking on any plan to expand the commission. The legislative session is expected to end by the second week of April.

In the other legislative chamber, another bill to add four consumer members to the commission, House Bill 1723, is scheduled to be heard Monday in the House Rules Committee. 

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, told he thinks the bill will be “tabled.” If that happens, it would not be brought up for a vote, possibly signaling that the House does not support expanding the commission.

National Bookmakers Want Consumer Options

Critics assert that the current Racing Commission is too cozy with the horse racing and casino industries and that it rubber stamps whatever the state’s casinos want, including the 51% profit-sharing rule. 

Carlton Saffa, chief market officer at Saracen Casino Resort, told any implication that the current commissioners are not objective “is a new low to me.”

He said “out-of-state gaming companies” have made this issue personal by attacking the integrity of the commission, "made up of some of the most accomplished and impressive businessmen in our state.”

The national bookmakers’ lobbyists say competition is good and that Arkansas consumers would benefit from having a choice to download major sports-wagering apps such as DraftKings Sportsbook and FanDuel Sportsbook.

Arkansas casino operators contend the majority of mobile sports-betting profits should remain in the state, where the resorts employ thousands of workers and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue. 

Those who support expanding the Racing Commission say the effort has nothing to do with the 51% profit-sharing rule but is aimed at adding consumers to the panel.

John Burris, a former Arkansas legislator representing a coalition of national online bookmakers, told the state's casinos are attempting to make the debate regarding the Racing Commission about "anything except what the bill actually says."

"That's because the reform is so reasonable," he said. "I believe boards work better with multiple perspectives (such as consumers) in the room."

Lawmakers Feud Over Motive

At Thursday’s Senate committee hearing, Sen. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, asked Bryant, the bill’s sponsor, whether someone came to him wanting the bill introduced. Murdock noted that consumers already serve on the commission.

Bryant did not name a group or individual seeking to expand the commission, adding that he wants good public policy, which includes having Arkansas consumers involved. He said the consumers do not have to be casino customers.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said it is improper to question Bryant’s motive in bringing the bill forth.

Murdock said he was not questioning Bryant’s motive but wanted an answer and that the best way to get it was to ask him directly.


This is a developing story. Check back for additional information and go to Insider News, Trends and Gaming Analysis for updates on this and other national issues.

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