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After long losing streak, why did Nebraska gambling supporters finally hit the jackpot?

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Aaron Sanderford recaps a roller coaster election day in Nebraska including Biden's win in the 2nd district.

LINCOLN — One way or another, Nebraska held the line against expanded gambling for more than 25 years.

Voters rejected two ballot measures that would have allowed casinos in the state, as well as a third that would have allowed off-track betting on horse races.

Courts tossed out other proposals. Some petition drives came up short on the number of signatures needed to make the ballot. Gambling opponents deep-sixed multiple legislative offerings.

That record ended Tuesday, when voters passed a trio of ballot initiatives allowing casinos at licensed horse race tracks and earmarking most of the tax revenue to property tax relief. Each drew at least 65% support, according to unofficial election results.

Interviews with people from both sides of the issue point to several reasons for the turnaround. Among them: Growing public acceptance of gambling, the spread of casinos in neighboring states, the appeal of property tax relief and the Nebraska Supreme Court’s unexpected decision allowing the proposals to appear on the ballot.

“It was the issue’s time,” said State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who helped manage this year’s initiative petition drives.

But Pat Loontjer, who founded Gambling With the Good Life and has been the indefatigable face of gambling opposition for 25 years, said opponents had expected the Supreme Court to block the initiatives and they were unsuccessful countering the pro-casino campaign over the following weeks.

“Twenty-five years and they killed it in one vote,” she said. “Nebraska will never be the same. We just became Nevada overnight.”

Loontjer acknowledged that cultural changes played a part in the outcome, an argument also made by initiative supporters and backed by public opinion polls.

Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs Social Series polls have found a growing share of Americans who say they believe gambling is “morally acceptable.” That share increased from 58% in 2009 to 71% this year and includes solid majorities among both liberals and conservatives.

Lynne McNally, executive vice president for the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said she has seen similar trends among Nebraskans.

Initiatives 429, 430 and 431 were a joint effort of the horsemen’s group, which represents the horse owners and trainers who race in Nebraska, and Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

She attributed some of the attitude change to the proliferation of casinos in neighboring states. Iowa and South Dakota led the way by legalizing casinos in 1989, with other states around Nebraska following suit in later years. Along with commercial casinos have come establishments run by Native American tribes.

These days, Nebraskans can hit the slot machines or put their money down on a blackjack table by driving across any of the state’s borders. Thousands have done so.

“People don’t see this as the big scary thing that’s only permitted in Las Vegas,” McNally said.

However, people did see Nebraska dollars going to other states and boosting their tax revenues, McNally said. That rankled many people, especially the money going to Iowa from casinos just across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs.

Initiative leaders sought to capitalize on that sentiment, from naming their effort Keep the Money in Nebraska to running advertisements highlighting estimates that Nebraskans spend nearly $400 million a year at casinos in neighboring states.

The ads also focused on the initiative directing 70% of taxes collected on the proposed casinos — an estimated $45.5 million annually — toward property tax credits.

Nate Grasz, policy director for the Nebraska Family Alliance, said he believes it was that promise of property tax relief that lured Nebraskans into voting for the ballot measures, not support for casinos. He noted that the ballot language did not include the words “casino” or “gambling,” referring instead to “all forms of games of chance” and to “gaming.”

“I don’t think people necessarily understood what they were authorizing,” he said. “At the end of the day, Nebraskans were sold a bill of goods.”

Loontjer also said that she doesn’t think voters understood all the consequences of approving the initiatives. In particular, she said it would open the door for Nebraska’s Native American tribes to open casinos.

But she and Grasz said the opposition struggled because they had only two months to get their message out after the State Supreme Court ruled that the measures could go on the ballot. The Sept. 10 ruling overturned Secretary of State Bob Evnen’s decision to keep the initiatives off the ballot.

“We thought the Supreme Court would agree with us, and they didn’t,” Loontjer said. “It never should have been on the ballot.”

Initiative supporters also had a short time frame to campaign, especially with many people opting to vote early by mail. But Lance Morgan, CEO of Ho-Chunk Inc., said they had prepared as if the proposals would make the ballot and worked to keep their message as focused as possible.

Keep the Money had a well-funded campaign. The group reported spending nearly $1.3 million in the first three-plus weeks of October, on top of $3 million spent through the end of September, a large share of which went for organizing, signature gathering and legal efforts. Almost all of the money came from Ho-Chunk.

The group’s spending eclipsed the $281,000 spent by Gambling With the Good Life through mid-October.

But opponents also had a better funded new group in their corner. Keep the Good Life spent $1.6 million through Oct. 19, with $250,000 of that coming from Gov. Pete Ricketts, an ardent gambling opponent. Most of the rest came from a nonprofit corporation that lists a top executive for Axiom Strategies, a political consulting firm, as its agent.

“In the past, the opposition has said we outspent them,” McNally said. “That was absolutely not the case this time.”

One campaign mailer from Keep the Good Life may have backfired, however. The mailer warned voters that the trio of initiatives would allow “Indian casinos” to be built across the state and that they would not pay taxes. It made no mention of the horse race tracks.

Morgan said internal polling had shown 63% to 64% support for the gambling measures before the mailer. Support dropped to the mid-50s after it, he said.

The final votes showed that support apparently rebounded after Keep the Money responded in an ad and Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett publicly disavowed the “anti-Native American” tone of the mailer. The mailer included a photo of Buffett, a gambling opponent.

But Morgan said initiative supporters were nervous on election night, wondering whether casinos would finally be approved or the past frustrations would be repeated.

“We did not know what was going to happen,” he said. “To come in at 65% to 69% was a shock to us.”

Photos: Our best staff images from November 2020, 402-473-9583

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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