Voters will get to weigh in on a set of three ballot initiatives that would permit and regulate casino gambling at Nebraska horse racing tracks, the State Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The court ruled 4-3 in favor of several pro-gambling groups and ordered Secretary of State Bob Evnen to place the three initiatives on the Nov. 3 ballot.
The initiatives, if approved, would amend the state constitution to legalize casino gambling at horse tracks, set up laws to regulate and tax the industry, and then steer the revenue toward offsetting local property taxes.
Racetracks in Omaha, Lincoln, South Sioux City, Columbus, Hastings and Grand Island would be eligible to host expanded gambling.
It will be the first time Nebraska voters have had such a sweeping opportunity to approve casino gambling. A similar petition drive in 2016 garnered too few signatures and also ran into the same legal questions that nearly derailed this effort. Other efforts have also been thwarted in the courts.
Andre Barry, a Lincoln lawyer who argued the case for one of the pro-gambling groups, Keep the Money in Nebraska, said he was grateful that the court agreed to hear the case on short notice and ruled so quickly.
“My clients are obviously thrilled with the result,” he said. “They’re going to be taking the case to the Nebraska voters.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts, a gambling opponent, said in a statement, “While I respect the judgment of the Court on the gambling initiatives, I urge Nebraskans to keep gambling out of the Good Life when they head to the polls in November.”
The groups submitted the three ballot initiatives with more than 475,000 signatures earlier this summer. But on Aug. 25, Evnen ruled that all of them violated state laws that say ballot measures must stick to a single topic and be clear to voters.
Evnen said the initiatives had the “hidden” effect of permitting casinos on Native American land within the state’s borders because of federal law and agreements between the state and tribes.
He also considered at least one of the initiatives, which would use tax proceeds from expanded gambling for property tax relief, to be logrolling, or a political exchange of favors, which he said is prohibited.
Keep the Money in Nebraska, joined by three other groups that sponsored the initiatives (the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the Winnebago Tribe’s Ho-Chunk Inc. and Omaha Exposition and Racing) quickly appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which accepted and heard the case last week.
“We conclude that neither the Constitutional Initiative, nor the Regulatory Initiative, nor the Tax Initiative violates the single subject rule,” said Judge Lindsey Miller-Lerman, writing for the majority.
Her ruling was joined by Judge Jeffrey Funke and Judge Lawrence Welch of the Nebraska Court of Appeals, who was filling in on the case. Judge William Cassel wrote a concurring opinion.
Chief Justice Michael Heavican and Judges Stephanie Stacy and John Freudenberg signed a three-page dissent.
They said Evnen had shown that the ballot measures covered more than one issue.
For example, the first initiative has a primary purpose of amending the state constitution to allow “all games of chance” (including casino-style gaming) while restricting it to “licensed racetracks.”
The initiatives’ supporters argued that those questions are linked and represent a single issue. But gambling foes said those are actually two separate issues.
“(T)he purpose of the provision restricting expanded casino-style gaming to ‘within licensed racetracks’ is not about geography. It is about money,” wrote the dissenting judges.
“Hidden in the folds of the question whether to authorize expanded casino-style gaming in Nebraska,” they added, “is the separate question whether only racetracks should be given an exclusive constitutional right to host such gaming,” they wrote.
Omaha attorney David Lopez represents Gambling With the Good Life, a Nebraska group that has fought the expansion of gambling for years. He said while his single-issue argument didn’t prevail with the majority, the ruling didn’t knock down his claims that the initiatives would quickly open the door to more Native American gaming within Nebraska’s borders.
“We respect the court’s decision,” he said. “It’s the end of the legal battle. Our obligation now is to inform voters of all its implications.”