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Bills introduced to help launch of voter-approved race track casinos in Nebraska

Bills introduced to help launch of voter-approved race track casinos in Nebraska

LINCOLN — A legislative foe of expanded gambling introduced two bills Tuesday aimed at getting voter-approved casinos up and running in a timely manner.

State Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, the General Affairs Committee chairman, said he offered the measures to help implement the trio of gambling initiatives passed by Nebraska voters last fall.

The initiatives included a constitutional amendment allowing casino gambling at licensed horse race tracks and two laws regulating the casinos and earmarking most of the tax revenue to property tax relief.

“The voters in November delivered a mandate and that is they want the casinos at race tracks and they want the property tax relief that provides,” Briese said. “It is incumbent on us to ensure the will of the voters is respected.”

Toward that end, he introduced Legislative Bills 560 and 561. The first makes clear that the initiatives also legalized sports betting at licensed race tracks. It would limit such betting to people actually in the casinos and would prohibit the use of credit cards for gambling in the casinos.

It would require background checks for people applying for gaming operator licenses and would create an enforcement mechanism for paying the taxes. It also would create new crimes for such things as cheating, manipulating slot machines or allowing underage people to gamble.

LB561 would merge the existing State Racing Commission with the Nebraska Gaming Commission called for in the initiatives, creating a seven-member State Racing and Gaming Commission. It would give the group the power to issue directives to carry out the initiatives, rather than go through the lengthy rules and regulations process.

It also would raise the age for betting on horse races to 21, up from 19, to match the age limit at the casinos.

Briese said bypassing the rule-making process means the implementation can be done more quickly. He said there has been some concern that gambling opponents could slow-walk the rules approval to keep casinos from opening. Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson both have to approve state rules and regulations.

Tom Sage, the Racing Commission director, said the proposals would be helpful, particularly the sections of LB 560 that create criminal penalties.

“We want as tough of restrictions as anyone in the country,” he said. “I want things done right.”

Merging the two commissions also makes sense to save money and avoid duplication of staff and time. The initiative called for the Gaming Commission to include the five Racing Commission members plus two additional appointed members.

The measures were pushed by Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, a group representing the horse owners and trainers who race in Nebraska.

Drew Niehaus, a spokesman for WarHorse Gaming, a subsidiary of Ho-Chunk created to operate three race track casinos, said the group appreciated Briese’s effort to see the initiatives carried out.

“Though we are still in the process of thoroughly examining the bills’ implications, we have no concerns with his proposed legislation,” he said. “Based on our initial understanding, the bills will help streamline some gaming operations, officially legalize sports wagering, and allow the state to more quickly draw upon a new source of tax revenue — something very much needed as we continue to deal with the economic effects of the pandemic.”

Sage said Briese’s two new bills, plus LB 365, a Briese bill to appropriate $225,000 for the fiscal year ending June 30, are key to launching the race track casinos. Without the emergency appropriation, there is no money available to even create a commission or issue public notice of a meeting.

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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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