Keep the Money in Nebraska has begun collecting signatures on petitions that would let voters determine if casino gambling should be allowed at the state’s five horse racetracks. The petition initiative is backed by the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents Nebraska horse owners and trainers and owns Lincoln Race Course and Horsemen’s Park; Omaha Exposition and Racing, which operates Omaha and Lincoln racetracks; and Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Ho-Chunk plans to reopen and operate a casino at Atokad Downs in South Sioux City, which closed in September 2012.
Omaha attorney and group spokesman Scott Lautenbaugh said he estimates Nebraska residents spend $500 million annually gambling at out-of-state casinos, while state and local governments lose millions in tax revenue. “It’s significant. It’s not small change,” he said, adding polls indicate most Nebraskans support casino gambling within reasonable limits.
The proposed constitutional amendment would allow casino gaming at Nebraska racetracks or a separate facility within 2,500 yards; each racetrack owner could decide which way to go, Lautenbaugh said. Operators would pay a one-time licensing fee of $1 million to the state and pay a 20 percent annual tax on gaming revenues, with 75 percent of going to the state and 25 percent to local governments where the casinos are located.
The three petitions being circulated, which require a total of at least 113,900 signatures, concern where casinos can be located, creating a commission to regulate the gaming and imposing a tax on revenues. To date, people have been “very receptive” to the petition campaign, which is using both volunteer and paid circulators, Lautenbaugh said. His group plans to eventually launch a “statewide, full-court press” collecting signatures at large events and popular venues.
State Senator Paul Schumacher noted, “The legislature has just not been responsible in addressing” allowing casino gambling. His expanded-gambling bill was defeated 27-16 in this year’s legislative session. He said the petition drive may not change legislators’ minds but “it might spur some discussion.”