New initiative seeks to allow gambling at Nebraska horse racing tracks and casinos

The petition sponsors proposed a constitutional amendment for the November 2020 ballot and two statutory initiatives to regulate casino gambling. They claim Nebraska is missing out on taxes and proceeds from about $500 million that residents wager annually in surrounding states. A similar Nebraska petition drive failed in 2016, when 42,000 out of 120,000 signatures were rejected as invalid. The campaign committee Keep the Money in Nebraska is preparing a proposed constitutional amendment for the November 2020 ballot that would allow gambling at state-licensed horse racing tracks. The effort was announced last Thursday by Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, who said the proposal has been filed with the secretary of state's office.

Accompanying the proposed constitutional amendment will be two statutory initiatives to regulate casino gambling.

Organizers argue that Nebraska is losing tax revenue from gambling to neighboring states, including Iowa, whose western casinos cater heavily to Nebraska residents. A 2013 study ordered by the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission found that Nebraska residents spent nearly $327 million at Iowa casinos.

Nebraska is "missing out on taxes and proceeds from about $500 million that residents wager annually in surrounding states," the petition sponsors said in a news release.

“Nebraskans’ money is funding other states’ priorities,” Ho-Chunk President and CEO Lance Morgan said in a statement, as reported by The Associated Press. “There’s a lot of good this money can do right here in Nebraska.” Expanded gambling would generate an estimated $50 million in new state tax revenue that could help fund property tax relief and support public schools, Morgan added.

Gambling opponents who have helped defeat past ballot measures say casinos lead to increased bankruptcies, embezzlements and families torn apart by gambling addiction. A similar Nebraska petition drive failed in 2016 when the secretary of state’s office announced that supporters didn’t submit enough verified signatures to place the issue on the ballot. Organizers turned in nearly 120,000 signatures, which would have been enough, but nearly 42,000 were rejected as invalid.

Ho-Chunk Inc., which owns the Atokad track in South Sioux City, is working with the Nebraska Benevolent Protection Association, a nonprofit group of thoroughbred owners and trainers. Organizers say they’re using a new signature collection group for this attempt.

Nebraska allows betting on horse racing, keno, lottery and bingo but has long resisted expanding casino gambling or video slots. Referendums to expand gambling failed in 2004 and 2006. In 2014, an issue with the wording of a referendum kept it off the ballot; it would have allowed historical horse racing machines, which allow bettors to place wagers on unidentified horses from previously run races nationwide. The Nebraska State Racing Commission is currently considering Fonner Park's request to add wagering on historical horse races.