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Editorial: Nebraska officials should move slowly, carefully in overseeing the casinos
Take it carefully, Nebraska

Editorial: Nebraska officials should move slowly, carefully in overseeing the casinos

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Nebraska voters approved a trio of ballot initiatives aimed at allowing casino gambling at six licensed horse race tracks across the state.

Last fall, Nebraskans overwhelmingly approved casino legalization. Now the state is taking its first steps to lay the groundwork. At this early stage, it’s best for the state to proceed carefully. Lay a sensible regulatory foundation, yes. But as experience in other states demonstrates, it can take time for state officials to understand the complete policy structure to best address their state’s casino circumstances.

Let’s see how this initial stage develops — the customer demands that materialize, revenues generated, the effects for communities, the needs for follow-up regulations and policies. Then, armed with the needed information and experience, state officials can make proper deliberative decisions to address unanticipated circumstances and pursue sensible opportunities.

Here’s one example of the need to go slow: Nebraska casinos, to be located at horse tracks and on Native American property, haven’t even opened, but already interest groups have leaped forward to press the state for further gambling expansion — namely sports betting. Nebraska has enough on its gambling-policy plate without needlessly adding the complications of the sports betting issue.

State senators, you can serve Nebraska’s best interests this session by giving sports gambling proponents a strong stiff-arm.

On a similar note, requests are starting to pour in to the Legislature to earmark specific portions of casino revenues to this particular need or that one. There are many worthy causes in the state, to be sure. But just as with the state’s overall budget, members of the Legislature must make deliberative decisions; there’s only so much money available. Lawmakers must be willing to say “no” to interest groups, or at least make clear they must be satisfied with only a partial loaf.

The state has another revenue-related challenge. It will be distributing those funds to a range of entities across Nebraska. The Legislature must put monitoring processes in place to oversee how entities handle the casino-related funds they do receive. Such prudence is part of sound fiscal management for any state with expanded gambling. At the local level, entities that receive casino-generated revenues have a responsibility to pursue sound budget management.

Nebraskans must be careful not to imagine that casinos will provide a magic solution to ongoing fiscal challenges. The key example: local property taxes. The initial $45 million or so that casinos are projected to generate for property tax relief is welcome. That figure would boost the state’s $275 million Property Tax Credit Cash Fund by about 16% — that’s a significant sum, but it’s by no means a panacea.

Gambling addiction is an undeniable adjunct to casino legalization, and as casinos put down roots here, state leaders have a crucial obligation to fund addiction treatment adequately. Under the ballot initiative approved in November, 2.5% of casino-generated revenues will go toward such treatment. Will that amount, plus current general-fund support, be enough to meet the need? If it proves inadequate, the Legislature must strengthen the funding to the appropriate level.

Nebraska is at the very beginning of its casino oversight. The state’s best bet? Take it slowly and carefully.

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