Nebraska Voters Take a Chance on Casino Gambling for Tax Relief

Nov. 3, 2020, 11:42 p.m. ·

Horse Track Casinos (Graphic: NET News)

Nebraskans agreed to welcome casinos by a sizable majority vote, adding table games and slot machines as a source of revenue for the state. It's a significant step beyond the small stakes wagering currently permitted, including the lottery, keno, bingo, and pari-mutuel thoroughbred racing.

Support for the bundle of three pro-casino amendments came from every corner of the state. Voters showed the most robust support in counties where horse tracks are already in place. Strong opposition came only in the state's most reliably conservative and smallest counties.

"I'm very happy for the people of the state of Nebraska," said Lynne McNally, spokesperson for the Keep The Money in Nebraska campaign organization. "I think they gave us a very clear mandate that they want us to keep the money here."

At publication, the leading opposition group, Gambling with the Good Life, had not released a public statement, and calls were not answered.

Three linked ballot questions asked voters to make legalized casino gambling part of the state's constitution, set up a system to regulate it, and require revenues to be used for property tax relief. Passage of all three was needed to pass to guarantee advancement of the plans, according to proponents.

This year's petition drive gained additional traction by linking expanded gaming with pari-mutuel racing and the state's horse breeding industry's survival. Adding casinos to established race tracks may limit their number, a prospect McNally speculates voters may have liked.

"I think that people definitely don't want us to look like South Dakota where there are slot machines on every corner at every convenience store," she told NET News. "I think Nebraskans did not want that."

Supporters claimed the state would benefit from casino revenues as a source of $45 million of property tax relief in the state.

For years supporters and opponents of expanded gambling in Nebraska squared off in the state legislature and at the ballot box. A series of attempts to legalize various forms of casino gaming failed to move forward.

The petition drive and subsequent campaign received substantial financial support from Ho-Chunk, Inc., a likely developer of a horse-track casino. The funding paid for a flood of television and social media advertising. Ho-Chunk funded an unsuccessful petition drive in 2016.

Without comparable campaign cash, an opposition group, Gambling with the Good Life, relied on name-brand support from Ricketts, former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and the Nebraska Family Alliance.

In August, there were doubts the casino question would appear on the ballot in any form.

Over the summer, over 470,000 signatures were collected on the trio of petitions and turned into Secretary of State Bob Evnen. He rejected the petition, ruling the petitions violated a state law requiring ballot issues to be framed as a single issue.

The Nebraska Supreme Court threw out Evnen's interpretation and allowed the vote to proceed.

Currently, six horse tracks in Nebraska would be able to request state approval for the addition of casino gaming. Two other western Nebraska communities have expressed an interest in adding new racing and casino facilities.