Casino Wagering Receives Approval in Conservative Nebraska While Sports Betting Remains Gray

Casino Wagering Receives Approval in Conservative Nebraska

  • Against history of opposition, Nebraska voters overwhelming approved casino wagering
  • Need for necessary tax funding & loss to bordering casino states were strong motivators
  • Sports wagering is possible, but many questions must be answered first by legislators

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A long record of denial and defeat ended last week as ultra-conservative Nebraska state voters passed a trio of ballot initiatives allowing casinos at licensed horse racetracks while targeting most of the tax revenue to property tax relief. Each individual ballot initiative drew commanding 65% support, according to unofficial election results.

Opinions from both sides of the issue point to several reasons for the turnaround. Among them include overall growing public acceptance of gambling, the noticeable spread of casinos in neighboring states, and the necessary appeal of property tax relief. The Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision to allow the proposal to even appear was somewhat of an overall surprise to many in the state.

“It was the issue’s time,” said State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who helped manage this year’s initiative petition drives.

A Win vs Strong Opposition

Pat Loontjer, who founded Gambling With the Good Life and has been the most identifiable face of gambling opposition in Nebraska for 25 years, said opponents had expected the Supreme Court to block the initiatives and they were unsuccessful countering pro-casino campaign over the past months.

She said:

Twenty-five years and they killed it in one vote. Nebraska will never be the same. We just became Nevada overnight. Loontjer also acknowledged that cultural changes played a part in the outcome, an argument also made by initiative supporters and backed by proof within public opinion polls.

Supporting those thoughts were Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs Social Series polls that found a growing share of Americans who say they believe gambling is “morally acceptable.” That share increased from 58% in 2009 to 71% this year. It includes majorities among both liberals and conservatives.

Nebraska Win vs Bordering Competition

Initiatives 429, 430, and 431 on the ballot were a joint effort of Nebraska Horsemen, which represents the horse owners and trainers who race in Nebraska, and Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development arm of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.

Lynne McNally, executive vice president for the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, attributed some of the attitude change to the proliferation of casinos in neighboring states. Iowa and South Dakota most noticeable by legalizing casinos in 1989, with other states bordering Nebraska following their lead in later years. Along with those commercial casinos have come establishments run by Native American tribes.

People did see Nebraska dollars going to other states while boosting their tax revenues, McNally said. That rankled many people, especially the money going to Iowa from casinos just across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs.

Initiative leaders sought to capitalize on that sentiment. They named their campaign Keep the Money in Nebraska and began running advertisements highlighting estimates that Nebraskans spend nearly $400 million a year at casinos in neighboring states. The ads also focused on the initiative directing 70% of taxes collected on the proposed casinos. An estimated $45.5 million annually toward property tax credits.

It was reported that Keep the Money had a well-funded campaign. The group spent nearly $1.3 million within October, in addition to $3 million spent through the end of September. A large share was appropriated for organizing, signature gathering and legal efforts. Almost all the money came from Ho-Chunk.

What about Sports Wagering?

Among the headlines is the somewhat gray area concerning the very topical discussion involving legalized sports wagering for Nebraskans.

Basically, it is relatively unclear if amendments 429, 430 and 431 will allow for potential sportsbooks and when potentially they could begin.

These amendments allow horse tracks to offer “games of chance”. A definition that usually does not include sports wagering under many recent legal hearings. It may require a new, separate act of state legislature to allow for sports wagering. Or another constitutional ballot for voters to allow for it at casinos (or online) within the state.

In the past, Nebraska legislators have attempted to legalize daily fantasy sports (DFS) are “games of skill”, by passing the state’s constitutional restrictions. The thought here would be legalizing sports wagering would be in a similar vein.

Because of Nebraska’s highly conservative focus, it is likely some compromise might be met soon. Potential for retail (onsite) sports wagering seems the more obvious choice with online wagering meeting the stiffer challenge due to opposition from political forces and deep-rooted conservative groups within the state.

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Larry Gibbs

Expert on Sports Betting Industry

Larry Gibbs is both a seasoned journalist and a respected online gaming industry consultant. His wry commentary & sharp analysis have appeared in numerous top gaming and sports wagering publications. He has also served as Vice President of US Gaming Services, a marketing research organization with 15 years of experience in US online wagering. He has spoken at noted gaming industry conferences including G2E, GiGSE, and NCLGS.

Email: [email protected]