Nebraska voters marking their general election ballots will pass judgment on a series of related initiative questions that together would allow for casino gambling at multiple locations in the state.
Proposed Measure No. 429 would amend the Nebraska Constitution to open the door for casino gaming operations within licensed horse racetrack enclosures in the state.
Proposed Measure No. 430, in turn, would take the state through that open door by enacting the Nebraska Racetrack Gaming Act and enshrining it in state statute.
The measure would establish a seven-member Nebraska Gaming Commission to license and regulate the gaming operations. The new commission would include two members in addition to the five members of the existing Nebraska Racing Commission.
Finally, Proposed Measure No. 431 would place in state law a taxation rate of 20% on gross gaming revenue generated through the racetrack gaming operations.
The resulting tax revenue would be earmarked as follows: 2.5% for the state’s Compulsive Gamblers Assistance Fund, 2.5% for the state’s General Fund, and 70% for the state’s Property Tax Credit Cash Fund.
The remaining 25% would be remitted to the county treasurer in the county where the gaming operation was located. If the operation in question were located in an unincorporated area of the county, all the money would go into county coffers. If the operation were located, in part or in whole, in an incorporated municipality, the money would be divided equally between the county and the city or village in question.
If Measure No. 429, the proposed constitutional amendment, were to be defeated by voters in this election, approval of Measure No. 430 and/or No. 431 would be moot.
Nebraska currently has six licensed horse racetracks, including Fairplay Park at Hastings, which is operated by Hastings Exposition & Racing at 947 S. Baltimore Ave.
Fonner Park in Grand Island, which is owned by the Hall County Agricultural Society, also is on the list.
The other four tracks on the list are Atokad Park at South Sioux City, Lincoln Race Course at Lincoln, Horsemen’s Park in Omaha, and Platte County Ag Park in Columbus.
Two organizations backing the expanded casino gaming petition are the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, owner of Lincoln Race Course and Horsemen’s Park in Omaha; and Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and owner of Atokad Park.
The campaign in support of the three related ballot measures is called “Keep the Money in Nebraska” and argues that Nebraska needs to keep hundreds of millions of casino gambling dollars per year at home rather than allowing them to escape out of state.
In presenting information on the three related ballot measures, the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office provides summaries of arguments both for and against them.
The “in favor” summaries cite supporters’ estimates that casino gambling would generate more than $65 million in new tax revenue for Nebraska — more than $40 million of which would be earmarked for property tax relief statewide.
The Compulsive Gambler’s Assistance Fund, which already exists, would receive an estimated $1.625 million per year from the new revenue stream, more than doubling the Nebraska Commission on Problem Gambling’s annual budget.
On its website, the Keep the Money in Nebraska Committee estimates that Nebraskans currently are spending at least $500 million per year in casinos in neighboring states. The group also states that more than 70% of Nebraska’s population currently lives within 60 miles of an existing out-of-state casino, and estimates that Nebraskans are spending nearly $400 million of the $500 million total in those nearby establishments alone. (Three casinos are operating in Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the state line from Omaha, and several others operate elsewhere in Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas and Missouri.)
The Keep the Money in Nebraska website highlights an April 2020 study by Jonathan B. Taylor, a Massachusetts economist who studies gaming and its economic impacts, especially for Native American groups. Taylor estimates horse racing track casinos in Nebraska would create a total of 4,653 jobs and be associated with $320 million of the gross state product.
The question of whether to allow casinos in Nebraska has long been contentious. Under the leadership of Pat Loontjer of Omaha, the organization Gambling with the Good Life has existed since 1995 to oppose expanded-gambling measures. GWTGL is leading the charge in the 2020 campaign, as well, working alongside groups including the nonprofit Nebraska Family Alliance, the Nebraska Catholic Conference and others.
In summarizing opposition arguments, the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office indicates that opponents contend Measure No. 429, the proposed constitutional amendment, would have the effect of legalizing casino gambling of all types not only in licensed racetrack enclosures, but on all tribal lands throughout Nebraska, where state regulations and taxation don’t apply.
This would be the case because of existing provisions in federal law, the opponents contend.
Again according to the Secretary of State’s Office, proponents of the constitutional amendment counter that the amendment would not automatically allow casinos on tribal lands since those are regulated at the federal level and an agreement with the governor would need to be reached.
In opposing Measures No. 430 and 431, critics assert that they are special-interest legislation that inappropriately bypasses the Nebraska Legislature and would give special tax consideration to gaming operations and the racetracks where they would be located. They maintain that the Legislature, not special interests, should determine how any potential casinos should be taxed and where the resulting revenue should go.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr and Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska Cornhuskers football coach and NU athletic director and a former U.S. congressman for Nebraska’s 3rd District, were among opponents who attended an Oct. 6 news conference at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln organized by Gambling with the Good Life.
Orr said her fellow former governors Bob Kerrey, Mike Johanns and Dave Heineman oppose the 2020 ballot measures, as well. (Kerrey and Johanns also served as U.S. senators from Nebraska.)
In remarks at the news conference, Osborne said casino gambling in Nebraska likely would cost the state far more money related to social problems than it would generate in new tax revenue.
Gambling addiction, crime and poverty are among the repercussions Osborne mentioned as being associated with expanded gambling.
“Most studies will show that for every $1 you get (in revenue) you lose between $3 and $4 in social costs,” Osborne said.
Osborne, who co-founded the TeamMates youth mentoring program with his wife, Nancy, said casino gambling would hurt innocent young people and damage Nebraska’s quality of life.
“The people that bear the greatest burden of this problem will be the families — the spouses and the children of of those who have a gambling problem, because they bear the greatest price.”