After at least four unsuccessful attempts at persuading voters to expand gambling in Nebraska in the past, pro-casino forces finally saddled up a winner on Tuesday.
By a healthy margin, voters approved a trio of ballot initiatives aimed at allowing casino gambling at six licensed horse racetracks across the state and devoting some of the proceeds to property tax relief.
“It was time,” said Lynne McNally, executive vice president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. “I think people want to keep the money here, but they want it limited, at only six locations, not on every street corner like in South Dakota.”
The victory culminated an expensive campaign to get the issues on the ballot, to ward off legal challenges and to woo voters. The campaign generated more than $7 million in spending by pro- and anti-gambling forces on advertisements, lawyers and petition circulators.
Most of the financial backing for the successful initiatives came from Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development wing of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and the owner of the Atokad racetrack in South Sioux City.
Opponents, led by prominent Nebraskans including football coach Tom Osborne and Gov. Pete Ricketts, had called casino gambling “a greed-driven business” that would exacerbate problem gambling and provide little property tax relief. They also complained that “Indian casinos” would spring up everywhere, a charge that backers of the gambling initiatives denied and said had racist overtones.
But advocates of the “racinos” (casinos at a racetrack) said that Nebraskans were betting an estimated $500 million a year at casinos in Iowa and other neighboring states and that it was time to “keep the money in Nebraska.”
McNally said the bulked-up revenue from casino gambling should allow the state’s thoroughbred racetracks to double the number of live racing days in Nebraska, from the current 53 days.
In 1985, a record 233 days of live racing were held, and Omaha’s premier track, Ak-Sar-Ben, drew 1.3 millions fans, many from Kansas City and Des Moines. But the advent of riverboat gambling in Iowa led to the closure of Ak-Sar-Ben. Ironically, McNally said, casinos are now going to revive horse racing in Nebraska.
The largest margin of victory for the three gambling measures was for the one that calls for directing an estimated $45.5 million a year of the proceeds from the casinos for additional state property tax credits for Nebraskans. Initiatives to amend the Nebraska Constitution to allow for expanded gambling and to create a State Gaming Commission to regulate the casinos also won by large margins.
Pat Loontjer, the head of the anti-casino group Gambling With the Good Life, said it felt like David fighting Goliath because her group was outspent, according to the last campaign spending reports, by almost $2 million.
Rejection of expanded gambling by Nebraska voters goes back to 1938, when a ballot measure to legalize slot machines was defeated. Other efforts to expand legalized gambling via the ballot failed in 1990, 2004 and 2006.
In addition, several efforts by state lawmakers to get constitutional amendments on the ballot to allow expanded gambling have failed over the years. In 2014, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed betting on previously run “historic” horse races, saying it violated a constitutional restriction that such issues contain only one subject.
And in 2016, a similar casino gambling proposal to the one approved Tuesday failed to obtain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.