Nebraska gambling opponents gear up for new casino campaign

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A group that helped thwart repeated attempts to expand gambling in Nebraska is gearing up again to fight a ballot campaign that would allow casinos at licensed horse racing tracks.

Gambling with the Good Life will campaign against the casino ballot measure and is looking for possible legal challenges similar to one last year, which knocked a historic horse racing proposal off the 2014 general election ballot. The group also plans to follow and videotape petition circulators to see if any violate state rules.

“Nothing’s off the table,” said Pat Loontjer, the group’s executive director. “We’re going to fight this tooth and nail, because we’re fighting for our children and grandchildren. It’s not about the money.”

The petition group, Keep the Money in Nebraska, began gathering signatures last month to place three gambling-related proposals on the November 2016 ballot.

The group has raised nearly $255,000 so far, mostly from Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Ho-Chunk has said it wants to reopen Atokad Downs, a South Sioux City race track that closed in 2012, and operate a casino on the site.

Former state Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a spokesman for Keep the Money in Nebraska, said the coalition plans to gather signatures at festivals and other events with large crowds. Petition circulators have spent recent weekends at Nebraska football games. The group has until July 7, 2016, to submit signatures for each measure.

Lautenbaugh said casino gambling would generate an estimated $90 million to $100 million a year in tax revenue for local and state governments. He said Nebraska already has the social ills caused by gambling - bankruptcies, divorces, gambling addictions - because of its proximity to casinos around the border. Supporters have also argued that the extra tax revenue could help pay for bridges, roads, schools and property tax relief.

“The reality is, Nebraska is surrounded by states that have gambling,” he said.

The Rev. Al Riskowski, executive director of the Nebraska Family Alliance, said attorneys are reviewing the petitions to gage what impact they could have on the state if passed. He pointed to language in the proposals that would allow casinos to sit as far away as 2,500 yards - about 1.4 miles - from an actual race track.

Riskowski said his group will work with Gambling with the Good Life to fight the measure, and plans to raise money starting in early 2016.

“We expected at some point that there would be another large-scale attempt to bring casinos into Nebraska,” he said. “It’s not surprising. It’s just disappointing.”

One gambling proposal would amend the state constitution to give voters the power to legalize casinos through ballot measures. The second ballot proposal would change state law to officially allow casinos, while creating a Nebraska Gaming and Racing Commission with seven members appointed by the governor.

The third would require casinos to pay a one-time state licensing fee of $1 million, and would impose a 20 percent tax on each casino’s gross gambling revenue. Of that revenue, 75 percent would go to the state and 25 percent would go to the local government in the city or county where the casino is located.

Nebraska allows keno, horse racing and a lottery, but voters have resisted video gambling machines. A ballot measure to authorize video keno was defeated in 2006. In 2004, voters rejected two proposals to allow casino gambling - one through a petition backed by Las Vegas casino interests, and the other approved by the Legislature.

Across the Missouri River, Iowa offers one of the nation’s widest ranges of gambling. Nebraska residents generated nearly $327 million in gross revenue for Iowa casinos in 2013, according to a consultant for the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission. Total gross revenue for the casinos was $1.4 billion, but only 53 percent came from Iowa gamblers.

Last year, the Nebraska Supreme Court invalidated a ballot measure that could have allowed electronic betting on previously recorded horse races shown on machines resembling casino slots.

The court ruled that the measure violated the constitution by squeezing two issues - whether to allow the machines and how the tax revenue is spent - into a single yes-or-no ballot question. The machines would have allowed bettors to view statistics about the horses before each race, with information that would identify specific horses or races removed.

Lautenbaugh, who introduced the horse racing amendment while in the Legislature, said he believes the new petitions can withstand a legal challenge. Attorneys “went over them with a fine-toothed comb,” he said.

Keep the Money in Nebraska and Ho-Chunk are both listed as petition sponsors along with two horse racing groups, the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association and Omaha Exposition & racing, Inc.

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