Nebraska Voters Have Chance to Approve Casinos at Race Tracks

Nebraska Voters Have Chance to Approve Casinos at Race Tracks

Editor’s note: One in a series of articles on U.S. sports betting and gaming issues that will appear on Nov. 3 ballots.

Nebraskan voters are set to determine the state’s gaming future when they take to the polls on Nov. 3.

If three gaming-related measures are passed, Nebraska will be able to introduce casinos at state-licensed race tracks and expand its gambling measures, possibly to include sports betting down the road. Currently, there are six licensed race tracks in Nebraska: Atokad Downs, Columbus Races, Fair Play Park, Fonner Park, Horsemen’s Park and Lincoln Race Course.

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The organization Keep the Money in Nebraska was able to get the measures placed on the ballot, but it took a state Supreme Court ruling to do so. This vote marks the first time in more than 15 years that Nebraska citizens have had the chance to make their opinions heard on casino gambling. A similar petition drive in 2016 didn’t receive enough support and had too few signatures, while other progressive gambling efforts have been stopped in the courts.

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Keep the Money in Nebraska projects the state would bring in more than $65 million a year in gambling taxes to help defray property taxes, improve local government budgets and provide counseling to combat gambling problems. The group also says more than seven in 10 citizens already have access to an out-of-state slot machine, meaning Nebraskans are already funding other state’s casinos by traveling across nearby borders.

Drew Niehaus, public relations director for Keep the Money in Nebraska, said the state loses nearly $400 a million a year because people go to Iowa casinos such as Harrah’s Council Bluffs.

“One of the big reasons that this is as big of an issue that it is, is because Nebraska is surrounded by states that all have legalized casino games,” he said. “Literally every state that touches Nebraska has legalized casino gaming, and that means that comes from the Nebraska economy.

“When you sit back and do the math, since casinos have legalized in Iowa alone, it’s roughly $9 billion that Nebraskans have exported to other states.”

Nebraska is one of six states that have gaming issues on the Nov. 3 ballot. Maryland, South Dakota, Colorado, Virginia and Louisiana are the others.

The 3 Gaming Measures

  • Initiative 429 would legalize casino gaming at licensed horse racing tracks in the state. This will allow Nebraska to keep the $400 million in revenue from going to neighboring states and create more than 4,600 jobs statewide. The hope is that more jobs in rural areas will lead to the expansion of the horse racing industry.
  • Initiative 430 would create a state regulatory body, funded by casinos, to govern and license Nebraska casinos. This organization will be responsible for ensuring the fair and legal gaming practices at each location. It would also ensure reporting from each gaming facility is accurate and complies with all state laws.
  • Initiative 431 will capture more than $65 million of new tax revenue every year with 70% of casino tax revenue reserved for property tax relief and contributing more than $40 million to the fund each year. Counties and cities home to casinos will share 25% of the tax revenue. The state’s general fund will receive 2.5%, as will the Compulsive Gambler’s Assistance Fund. This puts Nebraska’s Commission on Problem Gambling as the best-funded in the nation per capita.

Niehaus sees Initiative 431 as a key component to the measures being passed. In 2019, Nebraska had the fourth-highest median property tax as percentage of home value in the country. The property tax relief is a selling point Niehaus believes Nebraskans can get behind.

“With Nebraska, we have a unique situation because Nebraska has one of the highest property tax rates in the country,” Niehaus said. “If you look at the 10 highest property tax states, most of them are in the New England area. Nebraska is its own island in the middle of the country within the 10 worst property tax states. It’s been an issue ongoing for literally decades for Nebraska.

“And I think one of the reasons this has been received as well as it has, has been because one of the initiatives on the ballot specifically earmarks and guarantees that 70% of tax revenue is going to go into Nebraska’s tax relief, and that’s something our state desperately needs.”

Facing Opposition

Prominent Nebraskans have been outspoken against the ballot measures that would legalize state casinos. Current Gov. Pete Ricketts, former Gov. Kay Orr and former Nebraska football coach and U.S. Rep. Tom Osborne, are a few of those who believe legalized state casinos would lead to addictions and related social issues.

“We feel that these initiatives are certain to damage that quality of living,” Osborne told the Associated Press.

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Niehaus also notes that opponents in the state are claiming the initiatives will allow Indian casinos in every county and even permit casinos next to churches and schools. Educating voters against these fallacies has been a point of emphasis for his organization.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Niehaus said. “These initiatives are specifically written to legalize casinos at licensed horse racing tracks … At the end of the day, the state actually has control and has to enter into a compact with Indian tribes, and there’s just no possible way of Indian casinos popping up everywhere like they claim it’s going to be.

“If there’s a challenge we’re facing, it’s the education piece that that’s just not a possibility. And anyone who says otherwise is just ill-informed.”

Cautiously Optimistic

As the election draws near, Niehaus’ mind-set is “cautiously optimistic.” He has seen prevalent support on social media for the three initiatives. He hopes Nebraskans will look at the state’s history with gambling and be swayed for more progressive gaming measures. In 1934, horse race betting was licensed at pari-mutuel race tracks, while Keno and a state lottery are also active in Nebraska.

“Nebraska has a long-storied tradition of gambling,” he said. “It was one of the first states to actually legalize horse racing and being able to gamble on horse races in the country, so Nebraska is by no means opposed to gaming.

“We’re hearing a lot of support and seeing a lot of support on social media and hearing from a lot of folks from around the state that this is time, and that this is the right thing to do for Nebraska. And at the end of the day, Nebraska wants to keep its money in Nebraska.”