Texan won’t get second chance to qualify casino measure

LITTLE ROCK — Texas businessman Michael Wasserman cannot have more time to collect signatures for his ballot proposal to operate casinos in Arkansas — including Jefferson County — because the petitions he submitted initially did not meet basic signature requirements, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The state’s highest court unanimously affirmed Secretary of State Mark Martin’s decision to reject Wasserman’s proposed constitutional amendment to authorize his company to operate casinos in Jefferson County and six other counties.

The secretary of state ruled that Wasserman did not satisfy a requirement that he submit a number of signatures of registered voters equal to at least 5 percent of the vote in the 2010 gubernatorial election from at least 15 different counties.

Wasserman said the Supreme Court decision was disappointing but he will try to get on the state’s ballot in a future election.

“We’ll be back,” he said Thursday.

In oral arguments before the Supreme Court earlier this month, Wasserman’s attorney argued that Arkansas law required Martin to give Wasserman 30 days to correct deficiencies in his petition.

An attorney for Martin argued before the court that the law only allows additional time to correct deficiencies if a petition appears on its face to be valid but is found during the validation process to have fallen short of the number of signatures required for inclusion on the ballot. He argued that the law does not allow additional time to correct deficiencies in a petition that is obviously invalid when submitted, which he said was the case with Wasserman’s petition.

The Supreme Court agreed with Martin.

“We hold that in order to qualify for additional time, the petition must first on its face contain a sufficient number of signatures pursuant to both the statewide and 15-county requirement before the 30-day provision to correct deficiencies applies,” Justice Karen Baker wrote for the court.

Martin spokesman Alex Reed said Thursday the secretary of state’s office was pleased with the ruling.

“The ballots have been printed and (Wasserman’s proposal) will remain on the ballot, but the votes will not be counted,” Reed added.

Wasserman said he thought it was a shame that the people of Arkansas won’t get a chance to make their own decision.

“We have legislative bodies and various people with their own agendas stopping it from going to the general populace to make their own decision, and I think that’s very unfortunate,” he said.

Wasserman said that when tries to get a casino proposal on the ballot in a future election he will do things differently.

“We made some mistakes, and we will not make those mistakes again,” he said.

The Arkansas Racing Alliance, a ballot committee funded by Oaklawn Park thoroughbred track in Hot Springs, opposed Wasserman’s proposal and was an intervenor in his appeal. Elizabeth Robben Murray, attorney for the group, said she was pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“If anyone needed clarity provided, it certainly provides what is necessary before you can qualify for what they refer to as a cure period,” she said.

Martin had also argued that Wasserman lacked standing to bring his challenge because he is not an Arkansas resident. A majority of the justices rejected that argument, but Chief Justice Jim Hannah wrote in a separate opinion that he would have rejected the appeal for lack of standing.

Hannah wrote that Wasserman’s filing of his petition under the name of an Arkansas corporation, Arkansas Hotels and Entertainment Inc., “was a ruse to permit a resident of Texas to propose the law.”

Another proposal to allow casinos in certain counties, submitted by professional poker player Nancy Todd, has been rejected by Martin in a ruling that also is on appeal before the Supreme Court.

The court heard oral arguments in Todd’s appeal last week.

The Arkansas Racing Alliance has filed a separate lawsuit asking the Supreme Court to declare Todd’s proposal legally insufficient. On Thursday, the court denied the alliance’s request for oral arguments in its suit.