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Editorial: Nebraska should stake a claim to gambling revenue

Editorial: Nebraska should stake a claim to gambling revenue

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pexels.com

From our offices in downtown Omaha, we can see Harrah’s, one of three Council Bluffs casinos that together brought in more than $400 million in gross revenue in fiscal 2019. Unless casinos are in a tourism destination, they rely on bettors from the nearest population center, meaning that Nebraskans are subsidizing Iowa tax relief, infrastructure, environmental programs, problem gambler assistance and more.

It only makes sense for Nebraska to capture some of that revenue for real needs here.

To achieve that, Nebraska ballots this fall include three related citizen initiative proposals: A constitutional amendment to allow gaming at horse racing tracks only; and two proposed laws to regulate gaming and tax the proceeds. The latter question imposes a 20% tax on gross gambling revenue of licensed operators, of which 70% would go to property tax relief, 25% to counties, and 2.5% to both problem gamblers assistance and the state general fund.

Supporters estimate that would mean about $45 million a year for property tax relief. That estimate would add about 16% to the state’s $275 million Property Tax Credit Cash Fund.

Property tax relief is a critical need in Nebraska, and chiefly for that reason, we support the ballot measures to approve casino gaming at horse tracks.

Nebraska has the nation’s eighth highest property tax burden, which is tough on everyone, and has such perverse effects as creating an incentive for lifelong Nebraskans to move away when they retire — sometimes to Council Bluffs, where they might have a little extra money to play the slots. It hits farmers hard. A Pew Charitable Trust report in January found that Nebraska, with an average farm property tax burden of $16,200, brings in more cash taxing farmland than any state but California and Texas.

Obviously $45 million a year added to Nebraska’s relief efforts doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s not nothing. That money must be seen for what it is: A bit of help, not a panacea.

Opponents argue that casinos exacerbate a range of social problems, which is true. Opponents also correctly note that gambling advocates’ revenue projections typically fall short and supporters often seek expansion — which Nebraska’s constitutional provision would make difficult.

It also is true that casinos create jobs and generate tax revenue — and Nebraska gamblers do subsidize Iowa programs. In Omaha, we already absorb the impact of problem gambling, but without any casino taxes to help fight it. Casino foe Pete Ricketts, whose family-owned Chicago Cubs last month signed a deal with DraftKings to be the Cubs’ “official sports betting partner” with a goal of creating a retail sports book at Wrigley Field, points out that “Before casinos came to Council Bluffs, only about 9% of the homeless people Open Door serves came to them due to gambling. After the casinos, about 36% of those served say their homelessness is due to gambling addiction.”

That means that the river isn’t a sufficient barrier protecting Nebraskans from the evils of gambling — and that this state isn’t getting a share of casino proceeds to help address problem gambling or tax relief.

Iowa was an early entrant in casino gaming in 1991, with more than half of states now offering commercial, tribal or race track gaming. Iowa, except perhaps for Hawkeye kickers, isn’t more decadent than Nebraska or more decadent than it was in 1990. It does have an added source of revenue that Nebraska should also tap.

We urge Nebraskans to vote FOR Initiatives 429, 430 and 431.

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